By Robert M. Peck
At Philadelphia’s Civic Flag Day ceremony today, pioneering Academy entomologist the Rev. Dr. Henry C. McCook (1837-1911) was honored with a special award and flag dedication at City Hall.
The belated recognition comes not for his religious activities or his important contributions to science, but because he was the person who designed Philadelphia’s city flag, the first in the nation to be officially adopted (in 1895).
When McCook arrived in Philadelphia in 1870 to preach at the Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, he discovered a city with a very active and enthusiastic scientific community revolving around the Academy of Natural Sciences, which he joined in 1875. He quickly earned friends and admirers at the museum and elsewhere with his research and popular lectures on insects.
He was elected vice president of the Academy in 1882, a post he held for a number of years. He also was an active member of the American Entomological Society, serving as its president from 1898 to 1900.
Ahead of his time in thinking about the field of science now known as Sociobiology, McCook applied his knowledge about the cooperative activities of insects to both his religious teaching and his own engagement in civic affairs.
Apparently on his own initiative, he re-designed an existing city seal, by inserting symbols for Peace, Hope, Justice, and Prosperity. His design was adopted by Philadelphia and eventually found its way on to the city flag where it remained for decades.
In more recent years, some of the city’s blue and yellow flags have flown without a seal, but thanks to the tireless efforts of Brenda Exon, founder of Partners For Civic Pride, the city has once again agreed to include McCook’s seal on all of its flags.
A veteran of the Civil War—as one of the famous “Fighting McCooks”—McCook also fought in the Spanish-American War before settling down in Devon, outside of Philadelphia, to pursue his study of the taxonomy and habits of insects.
McCook spent his summers watching the behavior of ants and spiders in the mountains near Hollidaysburg, Pa. He became fascinated by the similarities between the societal habits of insects and human beings, a subject that would not become widely discussed for another century.
He published his research in Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and Transactions of the American Entomological Society.
In 1895 he published A Summer Campaign in Brownieland Against King Cob-weaver’s Pixies, A Story for Young People, which blended scientific research with whimsy to create a fairytale with characters based on the natural world.
The artist Daniel Carter Beard (1850-1941) created humorous anthropomorphic illustrations to accompany the text, which was intended to engage young people and the general public on the lives of insects. It was a successful collaboration that McCook extended into several other publications.
McCook’s fascination with the similarities between insect and human societies is evident throughout his work. In Ant Communities and How They Are Governed, A Study in Natural Civics, published in 1909 shortly before his death, he expressed his belief in the lessons one could learn from natural history.
“If socialism as a form of human government would be equally or even approximately successful,” he observed, “it must first attain that perfect individual discipline and absolute self-control, self-abnegation, self-surrender, and self-devotion to the good of the whole community that one sees in a commonwealth of ants.”
Robert M. Peck is the Academy’s Senior Fellow.
To read an opinion piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer, click here.