Margaret Collins used biology to push for equality

Unless you’re really into bugs, the name Margaret S. Collins may not mean that much to you. She was an entomologist who specialized in the study of termites, publishing prolifically throughout her career. She wasn’t just the “Termite Lady,” though, she was also an advocate for civil rights who pushed for equality through scientific investigation, risking both her life and freedom.

Collins was born in 1922 in West Virginia. She was always into bugs and collected them in the woods near her childhood home. At six, she was recognized as a prodigy and was granted access to West Virginia State University’s book collections. She used this opportunity to propel herself forward educationally, skipping two grades and graduating high school at 14. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in biology in 1943 and completed her PhD in Zoology seven years later (at age 28) with a dissertation on termites. At graduation, she became the first female entomologist of color.

After doing a stint as an assistant professor at Howard University, she left because of the inequality she saw between how male and female faculty members were treated. She relocated to Florida A & M University in Tallahassee, Florida. In 1953, she became chair of the Biology department.

In the early 1950s, while the civil rights struggles were really beginning to coalesce, Collins realized she could not sit idly by. She began to look for ways to do her part for the cause.

When invited to speak at a predominantly white university nearby, she decided to speak about biology and its implications when it came to discussions of equality. When word got out, someone phoned in a bomb threat and the university canceled her talk.1

In 1956, when the president of the Florida A & M Student Council called for a bus boycott in Tallahassee, she volunteered to drive people back and forth to work. When the protest organization got a tip that police and the FBI were going to raid their offices, Collins volunteered to transport the records containing sensitive information like the protestors’ names and addresses to safety. During this time, she recalled being routinely followed by both police and the FBI.

During the period from 1952–1957, Collins didn’t publish a single paper. In the years prior and subsequent to this period, she published at least two. That gives you some idea of how much of a focus her civil rights work had become.She recalled “A lot of people opposed our civil rights efforts. I had to do what I thought was the most important thing. That’s all there was to it.”

In 1958, she returned to field work with termites, which was her greatest passion. She continued her research and field work right up until her death in 1996 while researching termites in the Cayman Islands.

What I truly appreciate about Margaret Collins is her focus and drive. She saw work that needed to be done and she stepped up and did it. Even when it terrified her.

  1. It’s worth noting that the bomb threat didn’t stop her from discussing this topic. And she even led an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium entitled “Science and the Question of Human Equality” in 1979. It was turned into a book that was published in 1981. ↩︎