Reverend William Kirby, the Father of Modern Entomology

Published on 19th September 2018

William Kirby

On this day in 1759 Reverend William Kirby FRS FLS, an early member of the Linnean Society and leading entomologist, was born in the English county of Suffolk. Kirby studied in Ipswich and then went on to Caius College, Cambridge. He completed his B.A. degree in 1781 and in 1782 he started his studies to become a Reverend at Barham and Coddenham, near Ipswich. During his time at Barham he directed his attention to botany. As stated by his friend and fellow entomologist Mr William Spence (published in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society)

"His first taste for natural history was excited by his mother having been accustomed to lend him, when a child, occasionally as a treat, some of the foreign shells in her cabinet to look at and admire."

Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata © Olei

He then turned his attention to entomology after coming across a yellow 22-spotted ladybird (Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata) on his windowsill. According to Spence Kirby's whole ‘entomological career probably depended on his having been struck by this insect’.

Certificate of Recommendation
Reverend William Kirby's certificate of recommendation

In 1791 Kirby became an Associate Member of the Linnean Society, and by 1796 was an elected Fellow. During his life he published many books on insects including his first major work, Monographia Apum Angliae (Monograph on the Bees of England) in 1802 and the Introduction to Entomology, which was the first popular entomological work in English (1815–26).

Interestingly, in 1816 Kirby was involved in some controversy where he became an unexpected rival to our founding president and botanist Sir James Edward Smith (1759–1828) by running against Smith for the Botanical Professorship at Cambridge. In a letter from Smith to the famed entomologist Alexander Macleay (1767–1848). Smith wrote that:

"I do not accuse him of hypocrisy, only thus so far I say the character of a priest in the bad sense is essentially composed of hypocrisy and bigotry"

This rivalry, however, does not detract from the fact that Reverend William Kirby was a widely respected entomologist. During his lifetime he became an honorary life president of the Entomological Society of London (which he helped found), President of the Ipswich Museum and a Fellow of the Royal, Zoological and Geological Societies. In his lifetime he had significantly contributed to the study of natural history through is entomological research and because of that he is remembered as the Father of Modern Entomology.

It will be evident how extensively and successfully [William Kirby] cultivated natural science, and how deeply it is indebted to him.

​​William Spence speaking of Reverend William Kirby in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society​

William Kirby

By Leanne Melbourne, Events and Communications Manager