MADAME DRAGONFLY / Entomologist and explorer


Entomologist and explorer

London / Cloyne, Co. Cork / South America

1896 – 1991

Cynthia Longfield, ‘Madam Dragonfly’, was born in London in 1896. Her home schooling there was interrupted by regular visits to her maternal grandparents’ farm in Cloyne, Co. Cork, where she enjoyed roaming the countryside. Her early love of science and nature grew into a lifelong passion, and she became a leading authority on dragonflies and damselflies.

Longfield’s interest in the sciences was fostered in childhood, with her mother’s encouragement. She was inspired at an early age by reading about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and his Beagle voyage of 1831–6. She absorbed the importance of fieldwork and travel, which played an important role in her life and in her scientific work.

It was in 1921, during her first overseas tour – taking in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, the Panama Canal, Jamaica and Cuba – that her passion for entomology blossomed. In 1924, she participated in the St George Scientific Expedition, an 18-month-long re-enactment of Darwin’s Beagle voyage to the Galapogos Islands, where Longfield collected moths, beetles and butterflies for the Natural History Museum in London.

 Following this, she worked, unpaid, as a cataloguer at the museum, where she had responsibility for the dragonfly collection. Her personal circumstances freed her from the need for paid employment. She would remain in this post for thirty years, and continued to travel in search of specimens. In 1927, she participated in a six-month scientific expedition in the Mato Grosso, Brazil, where she collected 38 species of dragonfly, 3 of which were new species. She went on to make scientific expeditions to Southeast Asia in 1929, where she collected hundreds of moths and butterflies; to Kenya, Uganda, Rhodesia and South Africa in 1934, where she identified six new species of butterfly and dragonfly; and to Cape Town and Zimbabwe in 1937. She contracted malaria in 1937 and was forced to return to London, and was prevented from returning to Africa by the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, she volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service – she had also joined the Royal Army Service Corps and worked in an aeroplane factory during the First World War.

Longfield did not limit herself to quietly cataloguing species in the museum. She regularly published her findings, sat on museum committees, and was a member of the Entomological Society, the Royal Geographical Society and the London Natural History Society. In 1937, she published the sell-out The Dragonflies of the British Isles, which became the standard handbook on the topic.

She retired from London’s Natural History Museum in 1957 and returned to Cloyne, Co. Cork, but never stopped travelling or studying entomology. Two dragonfly species were named in her honour: Corphaeschna longfieldae (Brazil) and Agrionopter insignis cynthiae (Tanimbar Islands). She donated her personal archive and library, some 500 volumes, to the Royal Irish Academy in 1979, and her Irish specimen collection to the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

Thanks to herstorian Dr. Angela Byrne for this week’s herstory.