A History of Museum Victoria


Pictorial Timeline




The John Curtis British Insects Collection

Ken Walker

The full-length flame wood cabinet doors are impressive, beckoning you with high expectations to the John Curtis British Insects Collection. To open the doors is to stand in admiration before the results of years of meticulous labour. As you gently slide out drawer after drawer of tiny, delicately pinned and glued wasps, small wonder, you may think, that Curtis went blind in 1861. Only when you sit down with one of those drawers alongside its accompanying handwritten diary, and observe the pattern of arrangement, can you begin to appreciate fully the scientific value of the collection. The five diaries detail collecting and locality notes for almost every specimen in the collection.

The contents of the Curtis Collection comprises 38 031 specimens: 9 595 Coleoptera (beetles), 7 290 Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), 7 715 Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants), 5 878 Diptera (flies), 3 072 Hemiptera (true bugs) and 4 481 Exotic species. There are also approximately 1 000 Agricultural Insects specimens. The oldest specimen dates to 28 August 1796.

curtis collection mm008086
The oldest recorded specimens held in the Curtis Collection are hawk moths. The information associated with these specimens provides an invaluable picture of the biodiversity of the fauna from one location at that time. The present-day presence or absence of this species of hawk moth can provide valuable clues to factors affecting the survival or extinction of species.
Source: Museum Victoria Entomology Collection.
Photographer: Rodney Start.

John Curtis was born in Norwich in 1791, son of an engraver, and his mother was described as a 'cultivator of flowers'. At the age of sixteen he went to work for a local solicitor and began to supplement his income by collecting and selling insect specimens to the gentlemen entomologists of the day and learnt the art of scientific illustration. His first published illustrations appeared in Kirby and Spence's best seller Introduction to Entomology (1815-26).

In 1817 he went to London where he met many of the leading natural historians of the day, such as Sir Joseph Banks, and began his famous work British Entomology. It was produced in monthly parts to make sixteen volumes but along the way he found the need to prepare a checklist. A monumental piece of work with over 10,000 insect names in 256 columns, it was intended for his own use, but pressure for publication grew until it appeared as Guide to the Arrangement of British Insects in 1829.

By 1840 his eyes were beginning to trouble him, he had financial problems due to friends who had failed to honour debts and he seems to have run foul of the British entomological community. Despairing of 'the beggarly and petty-fogging men who make a stepping stone of us here in London', Curtis decided to give up 'Natural Science' writing and concentrate on describing insects in a 'practical and useful way'. He pioneered the area of insect pest control and he began a collection of insects 'injurious to Agriculturalists, Gardeners and plants' and contributed articles on pests to the Gardener's Chronicle under the name 'Ruricola'.

Curtis had made his second wife Matilda his sole heir and after his death in 1862 she negotiated the sale of his collections through Dr John Gray of the British Museum. The highest bidder was Professor McCoy, from the National Museum of Victoria, who paid £510 for the insect collection and £100 for the agricultural collection. The Curtis Insect Collection was placed in zinc-lined cabinets and sailed to Australia on the Prince of Wales, arriving some time in late 1863. It was perhaps some recompense for all the original Australian material that was finding its way into British and European collections.

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