Miriam Louisa Rothschild, ESA Fellow (2001)

Dame Miriam Louisa Rothschild (deceased 20 January 2005), a naturalist, zoologist, and entomologist, was elected as Fellow in 2001. She was a leading expert in multiple subjects such as fleas and the chemical ecology of insect and plant interactions, particularly in mimicry and toxin sequestration from plants. She was also an activist for preservation of nature reserves.

Rothschild was born 5 August 1908, at her family estate, Ashton Wold, Northampton, England. At a young age she was fascinated by plants, insects, and what she could observe under a microscope. She started collecting insects at the age of four, and her father’s passion for creating nature reserves further fueled her interest in natural history. She did not receive a formal education, but she was well educated at home by her father and uncle. She later enrolled in evening courses at Chelsea Polytechnic, London, where she studied gastropods and discovered a previously undescribed larval trematode. She continued to study trematode parasites of gastropods as a visiting scientist at the University of London’s Biological Station in Naples, Italy and the Marine Biological Station in Plymouth, England. In 1954 she served on a government advisory committee on myxomatosis in rabbits at Oxford. During her time at Oxford, she discovered that the virus was not transmitted by mosquitoes, as previously thought, but by the rabbit flea. Through additional work with fleas, she used high-speed photography and conducted anatomical studies that helped her identify the jumping mechanism. Later, she studied Lepidoptera and conducted groundbreaking research on the roles of plant derived toxins that are sequestered in insects. Her studies on selective foraging by birds paved the way for many studies on mimicry and chemical ecology.

She published over 300 scientific papers, and wrote several books including her six-volume, An Illustrated Catalogue of the Rothschild Collection of Fleas, and the popular 1952 book, Fleas, Flukes, and Cuckoos, which she co-authored with Theresa Clay. Her achievements were not limited to scientific work. She successfully lobbied to influence national policy for individual county wildlife trusts, and played an important role in establishing the practice of nature conservation in many parts of the world. She participated in her father’s Society for the Promotion of Nature, and was involved when it became the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts.

Rothschild earned many honors and medals throughout her life as a scientist. She was named Dame of the British Empire and, received honorary doctorates from at least eight universities, including Cambridge and Oxford. She was the first woman president of the Royal Entomological Society in 1993. She was designated an honorary fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, and a fellow of the Royal Society. She was given honorary life membership of the Standing Committee for International Entomological Congresses and Foreign Honorary Membership of the American Society of Arts and Sciences. She was also a Trustee of the Natural History Museum; she received the Victorian Medal of Honor of the Royal Horticultural Society, and the Royal Entomological Society’s Gold Medal.

(Updated May, 2012)