By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006; B06
Elaine R.S. Hodges, 69, who combined art with science in her meticulous drawings of insects and other organisms as a scientific illustrator at the National Museum of Natural History, died June 27 of breast cancer at her home in Eugene, Ore. She retired to Oregon 10 years ago after 31 years at the Smithsonian museum, where she became one of the country's leading figures in her exacting field.
Mrs. Hodges's illustrations of bees, moths, mosquitoes, fleas and other invertebrate animals were seldom seen by the vast numbers of visitors at the Smithsonian's museums on the Mall. Instead, they appeared primarily in scientific papers and books as part of the research of Smithsonian scientists.
She was a founder of a professional group, the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, and was the editor of the leading book on the topic, the "Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration," first published in 1989 and revised in 2003.
"Elaine was one of the absolute masters in the field," said Pamela M. Henson, director of institutional history at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
"She wrote the textbook on natural history illustration," said Robert K. Robbins, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum and Mrs. Hodges's former supervisor. "In that sense, she was a world figure."
The one time her work emerged from the pages of specialized journals came in 1996, when it was included in an exhibition at the Natural History Museum featuring 150 years of Smithsonian scientific illustrators, who have recorded the breadth of nature from plants and animals to geological formations.
Mrs. Hodges followed an artistic tradition that dates back to ancient Greece and early attempts to classify animals and depict medical ailments. Since then, artists have illustrated almost every branch of science.
Much of her work was done with the aid of a microscope, and she understood the limits of cameras and digital technology. Some subtleties, she knew, can be captured only by an artist's hand.
"Photographs simply cannot do it, because they are not accurate," she told the Eugene Register-Guard in 2000. "If you draw from a photograph, you can be sure you'll be in trouble with accuracy."
Peering through a microscope at her tiny specimens -- which were often damaged by the time they reached her -- Mrs. Hodges, who was left-handed, drew in pencil or ink. She sometimes painted with brushes dipped in carbon dust. Most scientific publications require black-and-white artwork, but she did execute some striking full-color images of bees.
"Many scientific illustrations are breathtakingly beautiful, but you cannot have artistic flourishes," said Henson, who co-curated the 1996 exhibition, "Eye on Science," with Mrs. Hodges. "It has to be real and accurate."
Elaine Rita Snyder was born in Washington on March 7, 1937, and was drawing before she was a year old. She took a summer course at the Corcoran Gallery of Art when she was about 10 but otherwise had little early training.
At a talent show at Coolidge High School, from which she graduated in 1954, Mrs. Hodges sang "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun" from "Annie Get Your Gun," while making a sketch of a woman aiming a rifle at a man. She won first prize.
She attended the old Wilson Teachers College for a year, then studied at the Pratt Institute in New York. By 1963, with an early marriage behind her, she was back in Washington and found a job as a clerk at the Smithsonian. She ran into an acquaintance from Pratt who suggested that she take up scientific drawing.
She was an illustrator with the Museum of Natural History from 1965 to 1996, and during that time studied biology at the University of Maryland.
Her husband, former Agriculture Department entomologist Ronald W. Hodges, said one of her painstaking drawings could take up to 80 hours to complete. Each hair on a moth's legs, for instance, had to be drawn precisely to scale.
Through her artistry and the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, Mrs. Hodges became a prominent figure in her field. She spent years working on the "Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration," enlisting the help of dozens of artists with the 575-page book.
She received many professional honors, including the Ranice W. Crosby Award for scientific communication, presented in May by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
"One of the greatest gifts she gave was her mentorship to hundreds of illustrators around the world," said Gary P. Lees, chairman and director of the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine at Johns Hopkins. "In creating that, she opened a pathway for people to understand what illustrators do and helped the field grow as a profession."
Mrs. Hodges lived in College Park for many years and was president of the Prince George's County chapter of the League of Women Voters. In her free time, she painted portraits and abstract works and made quick sketches of musicians performing at concerts.
Her marriage to Irving Taylor ended in divorce.
In addition to her husband of 39 years, of Eugene, survivors include two sons from her first marriage, Steven Hodges of Santa Barbara, Calif., and Lawrence Hodges of Germantown; her father, Samuel Snyder of Frederick; a sister, Carolyn Snyder of Frederick; three brothers, Solomon Snyder of Baltimore, Irving Snyder of Bluemont, Va., and Joel Snyder of Takoma Park; and two grandchildren.