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James Fletcher (1852-1908)
James Fletcher, a self-trained naturalist of great calibre, pioneered the studies of insect destruction of crops and of plant diseases in Canada – topics that were of vital importance to viable agriculture. As Dominion Entomologist and Botanist from 1887 to 1908, Fletcher was instrumental in convincing the government of the necessity of research in economic entomology which is the study of insects that benefit or harm crops, farm animals, or humans, and plant pathology which is the study of organisms and environmental conditions that cause disease in plants. Through his voluminous correspondence, his wide-ranging publications and continuous public speaking tours, Fletcher communicated his knowledge to farmers, fruit growers and gardeners across the country. He was also instrumental in establishing professional, non-governmental institutions and journals in the natural sciences in Canada and the United States.
Fletcher was born in England in 1852. At the age of 19, he joined the Bank of British North America in London and was transferred to the bank’s Montréal branch in 1874, and shortly thereafter to Ottawa. In 1876, he joined the staff of the Parliamentary Library as an accounting clerk. An active man, he played rugby, was a member of the Ottawa Snow Shoe Club and an avid camper. He travelled throughout Canada each year on personal and professional collecting field trips.
Fletcher established a reputation as an authority on insects and botany. He joined the Entomological Society of Canada in 1877 and, in 1878, published his first paper on Canadian jewel beetles. He was the founder of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club and published a series on botany in the organization’s journal. In June 1884, the Minister of Agriculture appointed Fletcher honorary Dominion Entomologist and Botanist, following a parliamentary recommendation to provide scientific advice to Canada’s growing agricultural community, in particular with respect to insect control. Initially, Fletcher worked without pay while still employed in the Parliamentary Library. He began by establishing a national network of farmers and gardeners to report on harmful weeds and insects and their controls. He set out to precisely identify insect pests and weeds and then promoted some of the first experimental and chemical controls earning recognition as Canada’s father of economic entomology. He also pioneered the study of plant pathology in Canada, which developed a decade after his death.
Fletcher proved the value of economic entomology to the Canadian government and became the first Dominion Entomologist and Botanist with the founding of the Department of Agriculture’s Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa (recognized as a National Historic Site in 1997). Initially working without staff, he identified pest insects and weeds and recommended controls. He drafted the first federal legislation pertaining to insects, the San Jose Scale Act of 1898, that restricted and controlled plant imports. From the foundation of his donated personal collection, he established the National Collection of Vascular Plants, the National Herbarium, and also began the collection of insects that has become the Canadian National Collection of Insects. Recognized for his botanical expertise, he became an examiner of economic botany at the University of Toronto and was a joint founder of the American Association of Economic Entomologists in 1889. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and founded the Association of Economic Entomologists of North America. Fletcher died in 1908.
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