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Female Entomologist: Grace Olive Wiley (1883 - 1948)

posted Mar 13, 2014, 11:38 AM by Becky Fisher   [ updated Apr 3, 2014, 9:00 AM ]
Grace Olive Wiley is most widely known for her illustrious career as a fearless and controversial snake collector. She frightened and informed her audiences by demonstrating nurturing relationships with her snakes. Snakes and insects have been associated with negative images of hypnotizing demons or filthy infestations. Her closeness with snakes captures attention, to say the least, but I think it also overshadowed her contributions to the field of entomology. This article is an attempt to shed some light on her life, her specimens in the Tri-Trophic TCN project and the field of entomology before she immersed herself in a world of herpetology exhibitionism.

Grace Olive Wiley was born and raised in Chanute, Kansas in 1883 on a farm. She attended the University of Kansas and achieved a bachelor degree in Entomology. She worked as an entomologist at the University at a time when women struggled to gain acceptance in scientific fields. The University of Kansas was unique. By 1867 they had already appointed their first (as well as one of the country's first) female professor, Cynthia A. Smith. In 1922, the Kansas University Science Bulletin put out Wiley's Life History Notes on Two Species of Saldidae (Hemiptera) Found in Kansas. Her enthusiasm in the field was also recognized by her male academic advisors in Kansas. Her professor H. B. Hungerford wrote in The Life History of The Toad Bug, "The live insects supplied by Mrs. Wiley [from her home in Chanute] thus made possible the notes here reported, and I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to her for her kindness".

By 1923, Wiley became the curator of the Minneapolis Public Library’s natural history museum. Although it is now defunct, this position made her one of the first female zoo curators in the world. This was also the year she announced her discovery of a new species of Rheumatobates from Texas in The Canadian Entomologist. She donated her private collection of reptiles which included 150 species and 330 individuals to the zoo and her reputation as a reptile expert took off. She quickly became the first person (man or woman) to successfully breed rattlesnakes in captivity. 

She believed that deadly snakes could be tamed and she refused to use hooks or other safety devices to handle them. Instead, she would gently stroke them and speak to them (snakes are deaf). Her unorthodox methods caused friction within the Zoo’s administrators. They demanded that she stop handling the snakes even though they were her own collection. Although she was never bitten at the Zoo, she was gavin a choice to either use safety equipment or leave. Wiley left, took her snakes with her and started a new job at the Brookfield Zoo outside of ChicagoThis new zoo wanted to display reptiles in a more natural setting. Their displays replicated the snakes' natural habitats and were big enough to hold multiple snakes at once. Before then, it is was customary to keep reptiles in separate metal cages without any stimulation. Yet again, Wiley’s habits of leaving the reptiles’ cases open caused problems between herself and the Director. She was fired after 19 venomous snakes escaped. 

Again, she packed up and moved. This time to Long Beach, California where she established a roadside zoo relatively close to L. A. Her snakes were featured in a few of the sensational movies of the time such as The Jungle Book, Trade Wind and Cobra Woman. During filming she was always on set and appeared onscreen as a snake charmer in the 1940 film Moon Over Burma. She charged 25 cents to join her, wander her roadside property and handle the snakes. She moved twice because neighbors complained. She had been bitten many times and lost two fingers to her Komodo Dragon.

On July 20, 1948 the renowned freelance journalist Daniel Mannix was visiting her zoo to finish an interview and take some photos. While posing with one of her new Indian Cobras, it bit her on her middle finger. Cobras have short fangs and need to chew on their prey to transfer their venom. Unfortunately, the cobra was able to chew on her finger for 30 seconds before Wiley was able to remove it. She was 64 years old. She calmly put the snake back in its cage and told the journalist to get her snakebite kit. Sadly, the kit was about 20 years old, the syringes were corroded and the serums were broken or evaporated. Wiley fell into a coma, was placed in an ambulance and died 65 minutes later at Long Beach Municipal Hospital. The hospital only carried anti-venom serums for North American snakes.

Before her unexpected death, Wiley had planned to sell her reptile collection to the Griffith Park Zoo. However, her estate was not able to find a buyer. As a result, her exotic collection was auctioned off bit by bit to the highest bidders. Overall, it was worth $3,000. The Indian Cobra that fatally bit Wiley was purchased by a man who displayed it as the “Lady-Killing Cobra” at a tourist spot in Arizona.

Wiley’s career as an entomologist was relatively short but productive. So much of it can be overpowered by her mystical, dangerous and high-profile herpetology career. Yet, we are still reaping the benefits of her work in entomology today. The green pegs on the map represent the various locations from which plant bugs were collected by Grace Olive Wiley. These specimens are located in the AMNH collection, the United States National Museum of Natural History, the University of Massachusetts Museum, the Oregon State Arthropod Collection, the University of Minnesota at St. Paul and the University of Kansas.

References and Suggested Further Reading: 

Maps built using and the Specimen Database

Photo of G. O. Wiley from 

Article by Becky Fisher: TTTCN Intern and Masters candidate at Columbia University in Museum Anthropology.