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Osborn, Herbert

Published onJul 30, 2021
Osborn, Herbert

(March 19, 1856 - September 20, 1954)

Quick Facts

Iowa State College entomology student, professor assistant, assistant professor, professor of entomology at Iowa State, later professor of entomology at Ohio State University and research professor. 

Herbert Osborn was born on March 19, 1856 in Lafayette Township, Walworth County, Wisconsin, a son of Charles Paine Osborn and Harriet Newell Marsh Osborn.  He attended country school there until the family moved to Fairfax, Iowa, several miles west of Cedar Rapids, in June, 1863.  Osborn later recalled that he became interested in prairie flora and fauna at a very early age and witnessed the ravages of both the Colorado potato beetle in 1864-1865 and the swarms of cicadas that damaged his father's orchard in 1871.  He took some cicada specimens at the time and later brought them to Ames.  These two events triggered his life long interest, study, and research in the field of entomology.  He also made early observations on the impact of the chinch bug, apple tree borer, codling moth, fall web worm, and tent caterpillar on fields, gardens, and orchards, many of which were used years later when he delivered reports to various horticultural societies.

In 1873, Osborn attended Iowa College (now Grinnell College) for a short while but had to withdraw due to illness.  At the same time, the Depression of 1873 kept him from re-entering school.  His father had met President Adonijah Welch from Iowa State College (now University), and in 1876 Osborn entered Iowa State and immediately began his studies under Professor Charles Bessey.  His intelligence and knowledge was noticed immediately, and he was put in charge of the zoology lab as a professor assistant, a situation in which as a freshman he was assisting sophomores in the lab.  In his retirement years, Osborn wrote an autobiography entitled Life Chronicle of a Naturalist, in which he detailed dormitory life on campus, the interior layout of “Old Main”( Main is the administration building which sat very nearly where Beardshear Hall sits today), social life, compulsory military training, and his own activities, writing for various farm journals and The Aurora, an early Iowa State student newspaper, and serving in the student council.  He was a member of Delta Tau Delta and also joined the Bachelors Debating Society.

Osborn graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Iowa State in 1879 and on the day of his graduation was elected by the board of trustees as Assistant in zoology and entomology.  A year later, after publishing Key to the Common Genera of Insects, he was awarded a Master of Science degree as well.  Several years later, on January 19, 1883, he married Alice Isadore Sayles, an Iowa State graduate of 1881.  Dora, as she was called, roomed for some time with Carrie Lane, a leading Iowa State student, who was later better known as Carrie Chapman Catt.  Also, Herbert and Dora moved into a new house that became known as Osborn Cottage, where they lived until 1898, and where all five of their children, Morse Foster, Herbert Tirrill, Evelyn, Dorothy, and Margaret Stanton Osborn, were born. 

Osborn's career was spectacularly successful from the beginning.  He became assistant professor of zoology and entomology in 1883 and was promoted to professor of entomology and zoology in 1885.  He was the entomologist at the Iowa  Agricultural Experimental Station from 1890-1898, was elected president of the Iowa Academy of Sciences in 1887, edited the Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Sciences from 1889-1898, spent one winter at Harvard, another winter in medical school, and yet another winter in Washington with the Department of Agriculture. He chaired the Department of Zoology and Entomology from 1892-1897, was a charter member and organizer of the American Association of Economic Entomologists and served as president in 1898.  He also served as special agent with the division of entomology of the U. S. Department of Agriculture from 1885-1894.

In 1898, Osborn left Iowa State to take a position with The Ohio State University at Columbus.  He served there as professor of zoology and entomology from 1898-1916, research professor from 1916-1933, and emeritus professor from 1933-1954.  During his years at Ohio State, he also served as Director of the Lake Laboratory (1898-1918); conservation entomologist with the Maine Experimental Station (1913-1954); conservation entomologist with the Tropical Plant Research Foundation, 1925, and trustee from 1926-1943; and a collaborator with the U.S. Bureau of Entomology (1920-1954.)  He was president of the Ohio Academy of Sciences (1904-5);  of the American Microscopical Society (1907-1909), of the Entomological Society of America (1911); and of the Society for the Promotion of Agricultural Science (1917-1918).  He was a trustee of the Biological Abstracts (1927-1937); trustee Research Fund of the Ohio Academy of Science, 1913-1954); and Fellow, California Academy of Science, 1937.  He was a member of the International Entomological Congress, the American Society of Naturalists, the American Entomological Society, the American Society of Zoologists, the Biological Society of Washington, the Societe Entomologique de France, and the Entomological Society of Washington.  He was a member of the honorary fraternities Sigma Xi, Phi Kappa Phi, Alpha Zeta, and Gamma Alpha. 

Dr. Osborn published more than 500 books and articles during his career.  Among his notable publications are Pedicull and Mallophaga of Man and Lower Animals (1891), Insects Affecting Domestic Animals (1896), The Hessian Fly in the United States (1898, The Leafhopper of Ohio (1928), Fragments of Entomological History (1937), Meadow and Pasture Insects (1939.)  As late as 1952, at the age of 96, he published A Brief History of Entomology.

Osborn was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science from Iowa State in 1916, an LLD degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1930 and an LLD from The Ohio State University in 1936.  He was a recipient of the Chicago Alumni Award from Iowa State in 1939.  The Natural Research Club, founded at Iowa State in 1920, was renamed the Osborn Research Club in 1921.  Osborn Cottage on the campus and Osborne Drive are named in his honor.

Dr. Herbert Osborn died on September 20, 1954  in Columbus, Ohio, and was interred in the Amaranth Abbey Mausoleum in Columbus.

Selected Sources

The Herbert Osborn Papers, RS 9/12/11 at Special Collections, Iowa State University, form a major source of information on the life of Dr. Osborn.  Especially his unpublished biography, Life Chronicle of a Naturalist, which he wrote about 1943, provides a rich source of information on his early life, his student years at Iowa, and early career there.  His description of Old Main is in detail, from floor to floor and almost from room to room.  He brings alive the intellectual and social life of the college at that time. 

A portion of his memoir was published as “We Filled the Bedticks with Straw,” The Iowa State Alumnus, Volume 65, Number 3, December, 1969, pp. 4-7.

Other sources on Dr. Osborn include Earle D. Ross, A History of The Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. Ames, Iowa. The Iowa State College Press, 1942, pp. 118, 141, 159, 162, 164, 195, 344; History and Reminiscences of I. A.C., 1897, Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, 1897, p. 230; The X-Ray, 1898. The Pygmies, Class of '98, Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, 1898; and Who Was Who in America. Chicago. Marquis Who's Who, 1960. Volume 3, 1951-1960, p. 656; H. Summerfield Day, The Iowa State University Campus and Its Buildings 1859-1979. Ames, IA. Iowa State University, 1980, pp. 372-373;  and   

An early conservationist with concern about endangered species, Osborn published “The Recently Extinct and Vanishing Animals of Iowa, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 6, Number 8, January, 1905, pp. 561-570.  This was actually seven years after he left Iowa State to go to Ohio State.

Obituary information can be found in the Herbert Osborn Papers;  also “In Memoriam,” The Alumnus of Iowa State College, Volume 50, Number, 5, March, 1955, p. 20;  and at    



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