This spring, the 17-year cicadas of Brood X will emerge from underground, climb tree trunks and molt, leaving their crunchy shells behind. Soon after, the males will join together in a droning chorus to the delight (or consternation) of their human neighbors.
Those with a keen ear might detect that there are several buzzy songs occurring at once. This is not because the cicadas have a large repertoire. Rather, there are few different cicada species, including the Magicicada septendecim and the Magicicada cassini, each with a different tune.
In the early 19th century this was still a mystery, but the entomologist Margaretta Hare Morris had suspicions. Ever since she had been a teenager, she had carefully observed the emergence of cicadas. She had heard the different cicada songs in 1817 and again 1834. It was in 1846, though, when she was 49, that Morris felt confident enough to announce that she had discovered a new species.
Digging down beneath her fruit trees, Morris had found cicada larvae sucking at the roots, five years before they were scheduled to emerge. Even just determining how the cicadas subsisted underground for 17 years was a breakthrough in 1846. She also found something else: some were significantly smaller than others.
Morris sent a report of her discoveries to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1846, one of the leading scientific organizations at the time. “I am inclined to believe that there are two species, differing sufficiently in size,” she wrote.
Morris described the larger cicadas as sluggish with a droning song that sounded like “Faaaa ROO.” The smaller, unnamed species was “extremely active, springing backwards with a sudden motion” with a tune “sharp and shrill, like the noise made by the loom of a stocking weaver.” For those of us unfamiliar with the sound of 19th-century stocking weavers, the modern entomologist Gene Kritsky has described their calls as “a short series of rattling, rapid clicks followed by a longer buzzing or ‘swishing’ sound.”
Given that Morris wasn’t a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, she had to have a male scientist read and present her report and specimens to her peers. Still, she persisted. She published articles in popular journals and invited the country’s leading scientists to come to her garden and witness her discoveries, creating a large network of supporters ready to endorse her methods.
It was due to these efforts that Morris was one of the first women elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850, alongside the astronomer Maria Mitchell. Still, you’ve probably never heard her name.
We have forgotten Morris and her work for several reasons, one of which involves this cicada species. In 1851 after that year’s cicada season was over, John Cassin (an ornithologist) and James Coggswell Fisher (a geologist), members of the Academy of Natural Science who had read Morris’s reports, proclaimed to have discovered a new species of cicada. It was much smaller and shriller than its better-known relative (this sounds familiar, yes?). They named it for themselves: Cicada Cassinii (Fisher, 1851).
What, ultimately, is in a name? Why does this matter? Given what I know about her, Margaretta Morris likely would not care that the insect she discovered was named for someone else. She wasn’t particularly interested in scientific fame. She was hoping to better understand the wonders of the insect world. Still, the fact that Cassini and Fisher jumped at the chance to name the bug for themselves means that when the excitement about Brood X’s emergence this spring is covered in newspapers, on podcasts, and in books, we will hear Cassin’s name over and over again. He has been immortalized while Morris has been erased.
If Morris’s name had been tied to this tiny shrill creature as well as the other insects she discovered, she could have served as a model for others like herself who felt a passion for studying insects. Women entomologists were hard to come by in the 19th century, and they continue to be significantly outnumbered today. When the cracks in the glass ceiling are obscured, it can feel daunting for the next person looking up at that ceiling, trying to determine how to break through. It is for this reason that it’s important to remember pioneers who pursued their passions no matter how lonely it had been and no matter how many times someone else took credit for their work. It is no less important to give credit where credit is due.
So, when you hear that shrill cicada sound this spring, whether you find it obnoxious or wondrous, know that there was a wily 19th-century scientist named Margaretta Morris who was entranced by the mystery of these creatures. She would have awaited the emergence of the 17-year cicadas with glee.