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Margaret S. COLLINS: “The Termite Lady”, a pioneer Entomologist

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” - Marie Curie

Picture of Margaret S. Collins on the stairs in front of the Smithonian museum in Washington. Black&white.

Photo of Margaret S. Collins in front of the famous National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian, Washington.

Often considered the biggest nightmare by homeowners, termites play a substantial role in the ecosystem. Besides being a food source for wildlife, termites have a positive environmental impact. They contribute to creating and promoting biodiversity by breaking down dead and recycling wood and increasing soil porosity. Margaret S. Collins was one of the zoologists fascinated by the natural world and excited by termites. Her research helped to increase our understanding of the status and distribution of termites.

Picture of the head of a termite, microscopy with scale bar

Picture of Parvitermes collinsae, a termite species native of the Antilles discovered by Dr. Margaret S. Collins and named after her.

Early Life and Education

Margaret James Strickland Collins was an African-American woman born in 1922, in West Virginia, USA. She was fortunate to be the daughter of well-educated parents, Rollins and Luella James. Her father earned a master’s degree, and taught courses in agriculture for high school students. Her mother received an education, but left college because of the disadvantages of access to education for women. 

Margaret received a quality education with both parents embracing change positively, fostering independence and nurturing curiosity, empathy, and innovation. Margaret displayed a natural talent for reading from an early age and went on to master collecting insects in her own yard and surrounding areas. Passionate about science, she exceptionally obtained access to the West Virginia State College Library to spend time reading books to keep learning about the fascinating world of insects. Being an academically gifted student performing above grade level, she skipped two grades and graduated in 1936 at only 14 years old from West Virginia State College’s Laboratory High School. In 1943, Margaret earned her Bachelor of Science degree majoring in biological science from West Virginia State University

Picture of Margaret S. Collins working on termites and wearing googles.

Dr. Margaret S. Collins assessing termites in Guana Island, British Virgin Islands (1993).

She then joined the University of Chicago and started her doctorate with Professor Alfred Edwards Emerson, a distinguished zoologist on the classification and social behaviour of termites. Professor Emerson prohibiting women from participating with him in his expeditions, Margaret is restrained to investigate termites in the laboratory by using the collection established by Alfred E. Emerson. She explored the importance of termite, their diversity, their anatomy, and biology and their relationship with the environment. In 1949, she became the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in entomology. 


During the span of 30 years, Margaret held a position as assistant professor at Howard University in Washington. In 1953, she was professor and chair of biology at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU). In 1964, she was appointed professor at Federal City College in Washington DC. In the same years, Margaret delved into fieldwork in North and South America. She uncovered two new species of termite, the Florida damp wood termite (or Neotermes luykxi), and the Parvitermes collinsae named in her honour.

Picture of Dr. Margaret S. Collins’ Field notebook displaying her writings and drawings

Dr. Margaret S. Collins’ Field notebook (1982)

Credit: siarchives

In 1983, she retired from her academic position and undertook a position of senior researcher at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Margaret continued her research on termites and greatly contributed to expanding the termite collection. She compiled over 40 publications expanding the knowledge of the termite physiology and diversity. As a pioneering entomologist and extensive role in studies on termites, Margaret was referred to as the “Termite Lady”.  

Family life

Margaret’s first marriage was to Bernard Strickland. Margaret faced her own set of challenges in life. As a young bride, Margaret’s husband joined up with American citizens to defy the Nazi Germany during World War II. 

After she divorced Bernard Strickland, Margaret married Herbert L. Collins and had two boys.


Picture of Dr. Margaret S. Collins showing to her grandson the process of examining a termite nest. Black and white

Dr. Margaret S. Collins showing to her grandson the process of examining a termite nest

Credit: Vernard R. Lewis

Human rights and civil rights activist

As an African-American woman, Margaret faced several challenges during these years. Racism and gender discrimination combined with occupational segregation affected her education and work experiences. During her studies, she found support and encouragement from two mentors, Toye Davis and Frederick Lehner, and she successfully earned her Bachelor of Science degree majoring in biological science in 1943. As a professor, she had one of her lectures cancelled due to a bomb threat.

Woman of vision and character, Margaret actively contributed to the civil rights action that was taking place in Florida. In the fifties, racial segregation was strikingly high and inequal. The city buses segregated passengers according to their colour. During the Civil Rights Movement, the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University’s student council called for a boycott of the city buses and to organise carpooling as an alternative transportation. Margaret stepped away from science and supported the movement by driving African-American to their work. Her actions were seen as illegal activities by the police and FBI. Inspired by the movement, Margaret pursued her effort in civil rights by organising conferences on “Science and the Question of Human Equality”.

Pamphlet of the memorial for Margaret S. Collins at the Smithsonian after her death

Example of memorial for Margaret S. Collins at the Smithsonian.

Credit : siarchives

Margaret was an extraordinary scientist with a passion for insects that might be a nightmare for entomophobia among us. She was also a courageous advocate who dedicated years to combating discrimination, segregation, and racism. Margaret died on April 27, 1996, at 73 years old during one of her expeditions in the Cayman Islands. 

She continues to be celebrated for her contribution to science. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History keeps the "Collins Collection", named after her. She is an inspiration for students in Entomology.

Written by Akila R. and edited by Tiffanie C.



Vernard R. Lewis "Child Prodigy, Pioneer Scientist, and Women and Civil Rights Advocate: Dr. Margaret James Strickland Collins (1922–1996)," Florida Entomologist 99(2), 334-336, (1 June 2016).

Eric W. Riddick, Michelle Samuel-Foo, Willye W. Bryan, and Alvin M. Simmons ‘’Memoirs of Black Entomologists: Reflections on Childhood, University, and Career Expériences’’, Entomological Society Of America, Annapolis, MD 2015


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