Women in Museum History: Alice Gray

by AMNH on

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After graduating from Cornell University in 1937, Alice Gray began her career at the Museum in 1937—an opportunity that presented itself because, as she put it, “I could draw insects.”

Alice Gray pointing to the thorax of a large insect model.
Gray at work creating insect models for the Museum.

Since high school, Gray had aspired to work as an entomologist at the Museum. On the advice of the Chairman of the Department of Entomology at the time, Frank E. Lutz, she majored in entomology while also training in scientific illustration. Gray continued her education alongside her work at the Museum, and in 1949, she earned an MS degree in Education from Teachers College.

Although her formal title was Scientific Assistant in the Department of Entomology, she was much better known as the “Bug Lady,” the woman in charge of the Museum’s insect and spider farms, which produced live specimens for both education and exhibition purposes. Gray routinely brought these animals to public schools around New York to acquaint students with the world of insects and spiders.

The late Alice Gray, seated at a table holding a large winged insect on the back of her hand. Also on the table is a large jar with more insects.
Gray's work with living collections earned her a reputation as the Museum's "Bug Lady."

In addition to contributing to the public understanding of insects through teaching, Gray was a talented artist and craftsman who designed and built many of the exhibits, including some of the large scale models, that were featured in the Museum’s former Hall of Insects and Spiders.

A gifted scientific illustrator and writer, she also contributed many articles and illustrations to Museum publications, including writing and illustrating a series of “Direction Leaflets” for insect collectors. These publications remain a valuable resource for amateur collectors and are accessible online through the Museum’s Research Library.

A woman, Alice Gray, standing at a table folding origami.
Gray's interest in origami eventually spawned the Museum's annual Origami Holiday Tree.

In the 1960’s, Gray became interested in origami as a way to expand her collection of toy insects. She eventually became an internationally recognized expert in the art of paper folding, co-authoring two books on the subject and inventing over 20 folded objects. Gray developed the first unofficial Museum origami tree, a three-foot-high decoration placed in the Entomology Department and adorned with origami insects. In 1972, this tree became the inspiration for the AMNH Holiday Origami Tree after the chairperson of the Trustee Exhibition Committee saw Gray’s.  

Even after her retirement in 1980, Alice Gray continued to serve as a liaison between the public and the scientific staff in the Department of Entomology and she also continued to oversee the folding of the hundreds of ornaments adorning the Museum’s 25-foot Holiday Origami Tree, a tradition which continues today.