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Manitoba History: Review: Paul W. Riegert, From Arsenic to DDT: A History of Entomology in Western Canada

by D. M. Loveridge
University of Toronto

Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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From Arsenic to DDT: A History of Entomology in Western Canada. Paul W. Riegert. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980. xii, 357 pp. ill. ISBN 0-8020-5499-4.

Barrels containing arsenic for grasshoppers.
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

From an entomological point of view, the history of Western Canada is a fairly simple story. In the beginning there were insects. These insects lived a stable and respectable life until the arrival of Europeans in the West, at which point things began to go downhill. The Europeans were apparently viewed by the bugs as something akin to junk food: delicious and addictive. Crops fell into the same category, but the insects’ assaults on foodstuffs soon prompted counterattacks. To start with both agricultural production and insect damage were inconsequential, but as agriculture developed in scale and complexity the insects’ depredations became correspondingly more serious. Finally, near the end of the last century, professional entomologists made their appearance on the scene.

Professor Riegert’s From Arsenic to DDT is primarily about these professionals, their problems and their achievements. A more accurate subtitle for the book would have been, “A History of Economic Entomologists in Western Canada, ca. 1884-1939.”

The author does not ignore earlier developments, for the first three chapters are devoted to the comments of sundry fur traders, explorers and early settlers on western insect life. While this introduction is interesting, it is not particularly germane to what follows. The author has expended a great deal of effort to show that these insects were a nuisance, but not—save for locusts—a very serious problem until the establishment of agriculture on a large scale after about 1880. The same point could have been made in much less space through a more judicious use of the published sources on which these chapters are largely based.

One moves from fat to meat in the second part of the study, which traces the development of professional entomology as it pertained to the West. I say “pertained to” rather than “in” because this part of the nation did not have an actual resident professional until forty-three years after the Manitoba Act. The process began in 1884 when James Fletcher, an accountant at the Library of Parliament and an amateur naturalist, was named the Honorary Dominion Entomologist. This meant that he had the honour and the work, but not the pay. A remunerative appointment did not follow until 1887, nor did he have any assistants until 1892. Nonetheless, Fletcher accomplished a good deal before his sudden death in 1908. Perhaps his most important achievement was the correspondence network he established (or hooked into?) with such amateur naturalists in the West as Hugh McKellar of Clearwater and Norman Criddle of Aweme in Manitoba. This endured even when the North-West Entomological Society passed away in 1902 after three years of feeble and under-financed life. With the help of such amateurs, Fletcher was able to collect and collate a great deal of basic information concerning western insect life, and to provide advice to western farmers concerning countermeasures to infestations of grasshoppers, cutworms and scale insects, among other pests. Although the first resident professionals did not appear in the West until after his death, it is probably fair to say that Fletcher set the tone for most of what followed.

In 1912 the first western field laboratory was established in Agassiz, B.C., and in 1913 Norman Criddle abandoned his amateur status for a government job in Manitoba—whereupon, he was sternly warned, all the specimens he collected became the property of the Dominion. These hesitant steps marked the beginnings of a vigorous assault on western insect life, with all levels of government lining up in support of the farmers in the front lines. The speed with which a mere handful of underpaid, under-equipped and overworked field service entomologists came to grips with the insect problems of farmers was positively phenomenal, as Riegert makes clear. Among other things, within a year of his appointment Criddle perfected, tested, and distributed the recipe for a practical grasshopper poison spread—the “Criddle mixture” of arsenic water and sawdust. E. H. Strickland at Lethbridge devised practical countermeasures for wheat streak mosaic, the pale western cutworm, and the army cutworm between his appointment in 1913 and his departure for France in 1916. Despite the disruptions caused by the War, a solid foundation was laid for economic entomology during these first years. Professor Riegert’s volume captures much of the excitement and zeal of these pioneers, and the hectic pace which they set.

The locust infestations of 1919-23 would probably have been crippling for western agriculture had it not been for the prior existence of an entomological infrastructure in the West. When the locust problem appeared, the field entomologists confronted their first major crisis by immediately undertaking systematic surveys, mobilizing the farmers, and conducting tests of poisons—up to and including one of poison gas attacks of the trench warfare variety which proved to be better suited to combating the Hun than the hopper. The scale of these efforts will, I suspect, surprise most readers. In 1922, for example, Alberta alone spent more than five hundred thousand pre-inflationary dollars on grasshopper control work. This successful campaign was repeated on an even larger scale in the 1930s in the face of severe economic and social complications. Riegert’s description of the latter episode is itself a useful addition to the literature on the dirty thirties in the West.

There is much, much more in this book. Substantial sections are devoted to British Columbia. In addition, there are individual chapters devoted to a range of specific problems, from the wheat stem sawfly and worms to the elimination of insects in stored products. All deal primarily with the interwar period. The variety of topics covered is, in fact, something of an impediment, for the author is forced to jump around a good deal. As a result, some chapters are not all that they might be—such as that on entomology in the universities, which is not particularly enlightening—and the latter third of the book is not the easiest of reading. One finds pockets of interesting discussion, humorous anecdotes, and useful explanations here and there, imbedded in deep strata of dull detail which the author has faithfully culled from professional journals and government reports. Like many an historian of science before him, Professor Riegert has been caught between the devil of technical detail and the deep blue sea of popularization. His chosen solution to this dilemma is to furnish as much of the former as possible without losing the layman. He comes very close to pulling it off, thanks to his talent for lucid explanation.

On the whole, From Arsenic to DDT is a good book on an obscure subject. Much hitherto more or less unavailable information is set in a coherent framework. Nonetheless, I doubt if it will have as wide a readership as it deserves. Those with an interest in Western Canadian scientific or agricultural development will certainly want to read it, and doubtless will, but those whose tastes are less specialized will probably pass it by. This is unfortunate, for there is much here of interest to the general historical reader.

Page revised: 13 July 2015

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