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Polymath Benjamin Banneker’s early scientific studies of cicadas

“Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer” mural by Maxime Seelbinder.
“Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer” mural by Maxime Seelbinder. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

Benjamin Banneker — who was born a freed Black man in Baltimore County, Md., in 1731 — is known mostly as an astronomer and mathematician, who also wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson about race relations in the United States.

But researchers Asamoah Nkwanta and his wife, Janet Barber, who spent a decade researching Banneker’s work, said he has not been credited for being among the first Americans to document the life span of cicadas — the insect swarm that’s making its once-in-17-years appearance this month.

Banneker was born to Mary Banneky, whose parents were of mixed heritage, and Robert Banneker, a former enslaved person. Benjamin was self-taught and died at 75 in 1806.

Banneker’s first experience with cicadas was at 17 in 1749 — according to a report Nkwanta and Barber completed seven years ago — when he noticed thousands of insects in the trees and bushes.

“I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the Earth, and would occation a famine in the land,” reads an excerpt from Banneker’s journal. “I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that my labor was in vain, therefore gave over my pretension.”

This large brood of the species reemerges every 17 years.

When they returned, “I then, being about thirty-four years of age had more sense than to endeavor to destroy them, knowing they were not so pernicious to the fruit of the Earth,” the journal passage continued.

Those recurrences provided enough evidence for Banneker — whose findings can be found in several libraries, including Morgan State University, Howard University and the Maryland Center for History and Culture — to draw a conclusion.

“Their periodical return is 17 years, but they, like the Comets, make but a short stay with us — the female has a sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of the trees, and in them holes lays eggs,” Banneker wrote in his journal.

“The branch soon dies and falls, then the egg by some occult cause immerges a great depth into the earth and there continues for the space of 17 years.”

Cicadas are not harmful, although the female has a stinger, said Barber, an independent research writer and regional program director for Charles Houston Community Writers in Alexandria, Va.

She and her husband moved to Temple Hills, Md., 31 years ago from Inglewood, Calif., and experienced cicadas in 2004. The couple in grade school learned about Banneker’s accomplishments, including his wooden clock and almanacs. But after realizing locusts also were referred to as cicadas, they decided to delve into Banneker’s journal, which contained his observations and documentation of the cicadas’ life over many years.

“What piqued my interest was not only the science behind the cicadas, but also the fact that people call it a different name,” Barber said. “I wanted to look at this man as he grew [from] a teenager to his older years. The things we found were fascinating ― especially when we went to visit his home in Ellicott [City].”

Cicadas, one of the longest living insects, also can emerge every 13 years, including in Maryland, and scientists have yet to figure out what causes the discrepancy, said Nkwanta, chair and professor of mathematics at Morgan State University. This year is the 17-year cycle for the large Brood X of cicadas.

Banneker’s contribution to cicada studies “absolutely” has been overlooked because he was a Black scientist, Nkwanta said. No one has been credited with figuring out the cicada life cycle, but multiple writers and observers, including Thomas Jefferson, have noted the recurring appearance of the species, Barber said.

“[This means] that we have a long way to go with correcting U.S. history in a sense that getting the correct history out there, so we all would be well-informed of the past,” said Nkwanta.

“I would hope that more people become aware of Banneker’s contribution to this area of science,” he said.

Barber echoed Nkwanta. “We have a history, but all of it is not told — all the way from science to the medical field,” she said.

— Baltimore Sun