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"Bugology" at Virginia Tech

Instruction of entomology at Virginia Tech dates back to 1888. It was first taught by Professor William Bradford Alwood. The cadets under his tutelage referred to the subject as "bugology" and where it was taught (Horticultural Hall) as the "bug house." The first graduate students at Virginia Tech were also taught entomology and related subjects. Their training led to careers across America and internationally. Many became well-known entomologists.

Virginia Tech's First Entomologist

William Bradford Alwood was Virginia Tech's first entomologist (1888-1904). His work helped establish the agricultural experiment station, the agricultural college, instruction of early graduate and undergraduate students in multiple agricultural subjects, and save the Virginia fruit industry from an invasive insect. Professor Alwood also served as Virginia's first state entomologist; published pioneer research in fruit culture, entomology, mycology, and agricultural education; and established the Virginia Tech insect collection. In 1927, he donated his book collection to the university library enabling the library to build a significant research collection. During his career, he mentored and taught students who went on to make their mark in entomology, mycology, and horticulture.

Virginia Tech's First Graduate Students - 1891

University president John McBryde (1891 - 1907) is credited for starting graduate education at Virginia Tech. Professor Alwood advised and taught 15 of those first students. Many went on to fruitful careers in entomology, mycology, and horticulture. The Rock House (Alwood's home until 1898) housed the college administration until it burned in 1900. It was rebuilt, but the fire destroyed many of the college records. Alwood's gradebook is one of the few records of student grades remaining today. Included in the book are the grades and names of postgraduate students. A photo of the gradebook and the page of graduate students are showed above.

Alwood Oak - 1897

In 1896, Professor Alwood entered into a cooperative agreement with the USDA Forestry Division to study climatic effects on several common species of forest trees grown from seed collected over a wide area of the country. The plan was to collect the seeds of each species from a number of different locations and have each state enter into cooperative tests, planting portions of the same under identical conditions for comparison. The plan, in part, fell through however after few states responded to Alwood’s proposal. After two years the work was discontinued and by permission of the USDA, Alwood published the results in Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin Number 88 in May 1898. The title of the publication was “Growing Forest Tree Seedlings.” Reported in the work was the planting of bur oak seed obtained from Vermont, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. The bur oak seeds germinated from May to June of 1897. From seedlings stratified and germinated in the greenhouse, Alwood planted 10 seedlings from each state (40 seedlings) in an outside nursery on the station. Besides some frost damage, the seedlings grew slowly as do most oaks. Alwood recommended the oak seedlings be transplanted to their final location within two years to avoid damaging them due to extensive root growth. Alwood reported a considerable number of forest and ornamental trees (from the study) were planted on the campus and where a forest belt was desired on the Station. Other species planted included walnut, chestnut, hackberry, honey locust, green ash, and white ash.

In 1902, Alwood accepted the task of beautifying the grounds of Virginia Tech when he planted, inventoried, and maintained the campus grove of trees. Today, few of those trees remain. But in his inventory was a tree labeled "Tree Number 66 - Bur Oak." That tree was part of his original bur oak plantings from his research study. His inventory documented that particular tree and location for all time.

Today, at least five of the bur oak trees survive. Several of the oaks can be found in the forest around "The Grove" -- the Virginia Tech president's mansion. Only one is located at the center of campus -- tree #66 - now known as the Alwood Oaknamed for Professor Alwood in 2011 when it was dedicated as such by the Board of Visitors and the university president. The Alwood Oak stands adjacent to Burruss Hall, the drillfield, and the Alwood Plaza - dedicated to Professor Alwood's life achievements in 2012.

Did you know, Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) produce the largest acorns of any North American oak species? Theoretically, this makes Virginia Tech squirrels fatter and happier than other squirrels around Blacksburg.

Savior of Virginia Fruit Industry - 1892

In 1892, while working with a Charlottesville orchardist, Professor Alwood discovered an invasive insect destroying apples at that location. The pest, referred to by locals as the "Sandy Hosey," was a scale insect. Its proper name was the San Jose Scale. The threat to Virginia's apple industry was so severe, that the commissioner of agriculture appointed Alwood as Virginia's first state entomologist and put him in charge of saving Virginia's apple industry from certain destruction. Alwood's effort employed some of the first integrated pest management (IPM) methods. He drew on his experience and collaborations with the USDA entomology bureau. That included techniques of using whale soap, arsenic, nicotine, eradication, sanitation, implementing the first pest law in the Eastern United States, and releasing a biological agent (a leaf beetle) to bring the pest under control. This did not make him a popular person as much of his work involved destruction of infected apple trees and nursery stock. His work was accomplished while touring Virginia's orchards on a bicycle. That entailed cycling over 2,000 miles during the first year of the infestation. Alwood was a faculty advisor of the VPI bicycle club and took his cycling very seriously. During a trip to Europe in 1900, he traveled the continent mostly by bicycle. Another way Alwood combated the Sandy Hosey was through organizing the growers into the Virginia Horticultural Society (1894). That organization continues to be a force behind the Virginia apple industry today.

Alwood's contribution to fruit culture went far beyond his work with this invasive pest. His international work contributed to building an extensive orchard of over 400 fruit varieties at the college experimental farm. His many publications in horticulture and pest management and his extensive travels throughout Europe earned him a worldwide reputation. In 1907 he was awarded a prestigious honor (Grand Cross of Officer du Merite Agricole) by the French president. He was also elected President of the International Viticulture Association.

The Bug House - 1890

The first agricultural building, Horticultural Hall, was built in the late 1800s to include the labs and offices of the agricultural experiment station. Resident instruction was also conducted in this building including entomology courses taught by Professor Alwood. The students named the building "the bug house" corresponding to courses in "bugology" taught there. The building was torn down to accomodate the construction of a new administration building, Burruss Hall, dedicated in 1936. Ironically, Virginia Tech President Julian Burruss, for whom the new building was named, took classes under Alwood in Horticultural Hall during his student days.

The Collection - 1888

If one visits the Virginia Tech insect collection today they will find specimens dating to 1888. Those specimens, based on handwriting matches (see photo comparing insect tags to his writing in his cellar books), were collected by Virginia Tech's first entomologist, Professor William Alwood.

The history of entomology at Virginia Tech dates to 1888 when our first entomologist, Professor William Bradford Alwood, began his 16-year tenure at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (later Virginia Tech) and the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. Alwood came to Blacksburg from an appointment as assistant to Dr. Charles Valentine Riley, USDA chief entomologist (America's pioneer entomologist). Alwood's tenure in the nation's capital established a career of discoveries, collaborations, and leadership that extended worldwide in horticulture, pest management, and agricultural education. Alwood was a USDA agent throughout his life, having returned to work as the national enologist for the USDA Bureau of Chemistry after leaving Virginia Tech. He was recognized as the savior of the Virginia fruit industry and an international leader in enology and viticulture. Alwood was a true "Renaissance man" exhibiting great talent in multiple fields throughout his career. He was trained at Ohio State University, George Washington University (the Columbian), the Royal Pomology Institute, and the Pasteur Institute during his career. But he was never granted a degree.

In 1923, Alwood was awarded the VPI Certificate of Merit. After he donated his book collection to Virginia Tech in 1927, Virginia Tech President Julian Burruss wrote to Alwood stating he hoped that some day Alwood's splendid service to Virginia Tech would be honored in some permanent manner. Burruss's hope was fulfilled in 2011 when Alwood was formally recognized by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors and the Alwood Oak was dedicated in his name. A year later, a permanent memorial (the Alwood Plaza) was dedicated adjacent to the oak.

Page created by Mike Weaver, Professor Emeritus, VT Department of Entomology. Stay tuned for Weaver's biography of William Bradford Alwood to be published in 2022.