Charles Valentine Riley

Charles Valentine Riley
Charles Valentine Riley

…None but the well informed are successful… for success in 
agriculture…today, implies knowledge – scientific knowledge.
Charles Valentine Riley (1872)

A vital and colorful personality, Charles Valentine Riley was a major 19th century figure who possessed a vision for enhancing the success of agriculture through new scientific knowledge.  Born in London in 1843, Riley immigrated to the United States at age 17 where he began work as a farm laborer, writer and illustrator in upstate Illinois.

Riley was named Missouri’s first State Entomologist in 1868, the Chief of the U. S. Entomological Commission in 1876, and the Chief Entomologist for USDA in 1878.  He was responsible for one of the first outstanding successes in the biological control of pests by introducing the Australian vedalia beetle to combat scale insects.  He also was a key figure in research that led to the rescue of the French wine industry from an insect pest.

The impact of Riley’s work of more than a century ago is still being felt today, not only in the fields of entomology and agriculture but also in other natural sciences. Riley was the first to recommend the establishment of the Office of Experiment Stations. He advocated establishment of the Branch of Economic Ornithology within USDA which evolved into the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey that is now in the U.S. Department of Interior.

Riley was truly a “whole-picture” person – an artist, a poet, a writer, a journalist, a linguist, a naturalist, and a philosopher as well as a scientist and administrator. In 1878, Riley joined with Alexander Graham Bell, John Wesley Powell, and fifty-seven other men in science, literature, and arts to found the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC as a “social club for individuals of distinction and sociability”.

Riley initiated the National Collection of Insects at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and was honorary curator of the collection when he died of injuries from an accident in 1895. Upon the death in 1978 of Riley’s last surviving child, Dr. Cathryn Vedalia Riley, a trust was established to further Riley’s memory. This trust assisted in the founding of the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation. Thus, the singular characteristic of Riley as a “whole-picture” person is reflected in the precepts and goals of the Riley Memorial Foundation.  Riley’s vision, and ability to see the role of agriculture and forestry in the productive and sustainable use of the landscape, as an artistry upon which all society depends, is perhaps his greatest legacy.

Additional information on Charles Valentine Riley is available through the National Agricultural Library here.