Sophie Lutterlough: The One Woman Information Bureau

                                     Written by Nancy Miorelli

As we bring our celebration of Black Entomologists Who Shaped Entomology to a close, the Ask an Entomologist team is continuing the conversation about how we can help provide support, inclusivity, and diversity in our science communication and Entomology. But more on that and what YOU Can do to help will be at the end. For now, let’s give the spotlight to our next amazing entomologist!

Sophie Lutterlough: 1910-2009

An African American woman sitting in a white lab coat in front a microscope

Sophie was a determined lady! Wanting a curation job at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History she was denied, as in 1943 as it was still possible to discriminate candidates based on their race. So she did the next best thing.

Got a job as an elevator operator (the first woman to hold that position mind you!) and decided to learn everything she possibly could in her free time. That free time mainly being her lunch break.

During her 14 years as the elevator operator she learned all. the. things. By her own effort mind you. Eventually, in 1957 she decided to ask insect curator, Dr. JF Gates Clarke for a job working in the entomology collections. Fortunately, he said yes and Sophie started working in the myriapod collection. Myriapods being centipedes and millipedes but she also worked on ticks.

While on the job she developed her own expertise. This queen just got some entomology books and compared images and keys in the books to what she was looking at in the microscope. And if you’ve ever seen what a key looks like and tried to read some of the random names for insect bits, that Is. No. Easy. Task! When necessary she consulted specialists but earned herself the title of “The one Woman Insect Bureau” for her in depth knowledge.

Diagram showing the complexity of insect keys. Showing a array of fly bristles and structures.
Key to blow flies. As you can tell, insect bits diagrams are a bit complicated.
Witworth T, 2010

In 1959 her work couldn’t be ignored and she was promoted to a research assistant. During this time, she also poured her energy into reading and learning more. She took college classes to help her fill in the gaps of her knowledge. When she wasn’t expanding her already expansive knowledge, she was responsible for preparing and restoring lots of specimens.

Like, lots, LOTS of them.

Like 300 THOUSAND ticks alone in 1963-1964.

She was even handed an old dried out collection of ticks from F.C. Bishopp that were considered practically lost to science. And she just went right along and rehydrated, treated, and restored 35,000 of them! You know, just a few.

And of course, as if that wasn’t all impressive enough. She also discovered some type specimens. 40 of them and along with Dr. Crabill worked to have those restored as well. (Type specimens are the representative specimen as the reference point for which a species is defined.)

After 40 years and earning the Exemplary Service Award, she retired in 1983. She said that her greatest challenge moving forward “would be getting used to not coming to work at this wonderful institution.”

She died in 2009, one of 8 registered black entomologists in 2008 of the 1348 registered entomologists. Clearly we have a long way to go in regards to inclusivity and diversity in entomology.

TL;DR

Sophie Lutterflough despite initial discrimination landed her dream job at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. During her 40 years, she learned all she could while working as an elevator operator before beoming a research assistant. She as soley responsible for restoring hundreds of thousands of specimines before earning the Exemplary Service Award and retiring in 2008.


How Can We Help Promote Diversity

One of the ways that you can help, is to sign the petition to change the name of the Linnean Games. The Linnean Games are kind of a bug trivia competition held at national entomology conferences. While the name was meant to honor the extensive revisions that Linneaus did on our biological classification system, his racist tendencies and attempts to use his system to categorize other people as lesser cannot be ignored. What will it be named in change? Who knows, but I’m all for “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Instar.” Regardless, the Entomological Society of America admits that only 2.7% of its thousands of members are black. Any change we can make to help make BIPOC feel comfortable in scientific spaces should be done.

Says "Entomological Society of America: Change the Name of the Linnean Games" on a black background with black and white images of an Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar, the pupae, and the adult butterfly.

Furthermore, the Ask an Entomologist Team is considering conducing interviews with scientists again (it was a series we did on our FaceBook page for a while before our hiatus). If and when we decide to bring it back, we will be sure to highlight a wide diversity of scientists, students, and communicators. We’re looking forward to highlighting amazing scientists and projects.

Finally, Ask an Entomologist is dedicated to continue to produce open access materials. This includes everything we’ve written on our blog, the Entomology Lesson Plans set to NGSS, National Science Standards, and Georgia State Science Standards. We also continually update our resources page which links to other open access resources. Our twitter continues to host in-depth threads focusing on insect biology. We are dedicated to making science, and especially entomology, more easily accessible by everyone.


References

Hang out with Nancy and let’s be friends!


  1. Harvey. 2012. What is a Type Specimen? Mark Harvey’s Blog: Western Australian Museum. Accessed 30 June, 2020
  2. Sayah O. 2016. “It Won’t Be Easy to Leave after 40 Years”: Sophie Lutterlough’s Career at the National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian Institute Archives Accessed 30 June 2020.
  3. Sophie Lutterlough. Wikipedia. Accessed 30 June, 2020.

About Polistes fuscatus

Hello, I'm the friendly admin for the Ask an Entomologist blog
This entry was posted in History, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sophie Lutterlough: The One Woman Information Bureau

  1. Hannah says:

    What an inspiring woman! And choosing to spend her spare time learning about what she was passionate about – thanks for introducing her!

    Liked by 1 person

Discuss with Us

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s