Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor finalist – Cynthia Longfield, Madame Dragonfly

5 Jul 2013

Entomologist Cynthia Longfield. Photo via 'Stars, Shells and Bluebells'

Cynthia Evelyn Longfield was an international dragonfly expert and an intrepid explorer.

She was born in Cloyne, Co Cork, on 16 August 1896, and revealed an interest in science at an early age. Her career in the subject began in the mid-1920s, with a trip to South America, where she collected some specimens, and an expedition to the South Pacific Islands with Scientific Research Expeditions Ltd.

Longfield’s task on that South Pacific trip was to help collect beetles, butterflies and moths, pinning and identifying specimens, and feeding the larval and pupal stages collected so the insects’ lifecycles could be studied.

She returned to London in 1925 as an experienced field entomologist and joined the Entomological Society of London and the Royal Geographical Society.

Longfield also began working at the Natural History Museum, as an unpaid associate member in charge of dragonflies – the Odonata, a group of insects that at the time was not well studied.

In time, Longfield became the British Museum’s resident expert and honorary member, and an international authority.

In 1927, she joined an expedition to Brazil’s Mato Grosso, and returned to the Natural History Museum with 38 species, including three new to science.

Douglas Kimmins, her director at the British Museum, named one of these after her, Corphaeschna longfieldae Kimmins.

Longfield went on to publish a steady stream of papers between 1929 and 1964.

Also in 1929, during an expedition to south-east Asia, Longfield collected hundreds of butterflies and moths, and 368 Odonata. She consulted a Dutch entomologist, Lieftinck, who knew Asia well, for help in sorting out the collection. One small dragonfly with a red abdomen was new and he named it after her: Agrionopter insignis cynthiae Lieftinck.

Longfield’s other excursions covered Canada, as well as Africa, a continent she visited twice. She collected plants and flowers in Canada, and her first trip to Africa in 1934 yielded butterflies and dragonflies. Among the 58 different species she brought back were six new species.

Longfield gave lectures after all her expeditions, making no apology for her interest in archaeology, anthropology, politics and natural history.

She became the first female president of the London Natural History Society and the first woman elected to the Entomological Society’s council.

In 1935, she co-wrote with her colleagues The Generic Names of the British Odonata with a check list of British Species. Her definitive handbook on British dragonflies, The Dragonflies of the British Isles, was published in 1937.

Just before World War II, Longfield became one of the first women volunteers to have joined the Auxiliary Fire Service, and she had been in charge of 100 other women at Brompton fire station.  

By 1946, she focused on helping to revive the British Museum after the war. She also became chairman of the entomological section of the London Natural History Society, and worked on an enlarged second edition of Dragonflies of the British Isles.

Longfield retired at age 60, and returned to live at her childhood home in Cork. She continued to travel, collect specimens, and write. Dragonflies, co-written with Philip Corbet and Norman Moore, was published in 1960.

In 1977, she wrote the foreword to The Dragonflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Cyril Hammond and Robert Merritt.

Longfield became a patron of the Cork Ornithological Society in 1967, and the first fellow of the British Dragonfly Society in 1983.

Her fully annotated record books and entomological collection were sent to the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, in 1978.

Longfield died on 27 June 1991.

To vote for Longfield as Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor, click here.

Read about the other finalists in our Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor competition:

Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli

Lilian Bland

Agnes Clerke

Phyllis Clinch

Margaret Lindsay Huggins

Kathleen Lonsdale

Annie Maunder

Dorothy Stopford Price

Alicia Boole Stott

With thanks to Mary Mulvihill of Ingenious Ireland for providing the material for this profile from her book Stars, Shells and Bluebells (1997).

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths