In 1546, the teenage Thomas Penny from the hamlet of Eskrigg, near Gressingham in Lancashire, entered Queens’ College, Cambridge. He eventually moved from Queens’ to Trinity College in 1550 as a sizar (a student receiving financial support in return for certain menial duties), graduating in 1551 and becoming a fellow in 1553. Shortly after that he became bursar of Trinity. He was clearly an outstanding scholar. Little is known of his time at Queens’, but Penny would go on to become a leading entomologist with an international reputation. One of us (David B Sattelle) was aware that the Old Library at Queens’ held a copy of the work by René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur entitled Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire des insectes (6 volumes, 267 plates, published in Amsterdam 1734-1742) [O.8.23-28]. With a lecture to prepare for a symposium celebrating his receipt of an international award, David approached the librarian Dr Tim Eggington to renew his acquaintance with the work. Réaumur had been a pioneer in insect experimental biology and had also made important contributions to several other areas of science.

It was particularly exciting to discover that the Old Library also held a copy of Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum [F.9.27], co-authored by Conrad Gesner, Edward Wotton, Thomas Moffett and Thomas Penny. It was the first ever substantive European book on insects and was published in 1634, long after the death of all the authors. Most of the drawings in this landmark volume are by Thomas Penny. David’s own research career has now spanned half a century, publishing every year since 1972, but links between Queens’ and Entomology span almost half a millennium.

Thomas Penny

Born in 1532, Thomas made records of insects and plants throughout his life and generated excellent illustrations (Raven, 1947). He described and made careful drawings of insects that interested him with precise observations of their habitats and behaviour with few preconceived notions, making him a pioneer naturalist. Like many in Cambridge in the era of the young Protestant King Edward VI, who reigned from 1547-1553, Thomas was a Puritan, and his views would have been out of step with ecclesiastical thinking in the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I (1553-1558). Thomas married Margaret Lucas, daughter of John Lucas, The Master of Requests to the young King Edward VI. This marriage likely assured him of a stable income and may have helped support his travels to Montpellier where he studied, obtaining a medical qualification. He also travelled to Mallorca, Germany and importantly Switzerland, where he met and worked with Conrad Gesner.

Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558-1603, wanted to avoid the religious extremes of her predecessor Mary I and aimed for a settlement to bring religious harmony to England. The Settlement was a blend of Catholicism and Protestantism that became the basis for the Church of England and endured, despite challenges, from 1559 to beyond the end of Elizabeth’s reign.  Thomas Penny prospered as an Elizabethan and became Prebend of St Paul’s in 1560 and Preacher in 1561. However, his Spittal Sermon of 1565 was bitterly criticised by Archbishop Matthew Parker, noting that Penny was “ill affected towards the establishment”, making prospects for his advancement in the church unlikely. After this, Penny left for the continent with a plan to study medicine, although he maintained his stall at St Paul’s (and its prebendary income from Newington) until 1577.

The complex journey to publication of the first substantive European book on Entomology

Today biologists can share their findings with colleagues on the day their paper is completed by submitting it to a preprint server such as biorxiv.org. From there it can be transferred to an established journal for peer review. The route to publication of Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum, on the other hand, was long and tortuous.  Penny was already an authority on plants and animals, and shared his interests with a younger colleague, Thomas Moffett. Both were part of a group of like-minded scholars that met regularly in Limehouse. Moffett was shown a flying fish by Francis Drake and Penny received correspondence on insects from overseas, notably from John White who was part of the Roanoke settlement in “The New World”, located close to what is now the border of Virginia and North Carolina. White’s drawings, which Penny incorporated into his planned book, are among the very few relics of the colony.  

Penny visited Conrad Gesner in Switzerland helping with his work on insects and plants, and on his return to the UK spent 15 years working on a draft of a book on insects, while working as a physician in London. His career as a physician was not without incident. On his return from Europe, the College of Physicians refused him entrance and he was briefly imprisoned for practicing without a license, although he soon established a successful practice in the fashionable location of Leadenhall Street in London. Penny suffered from asthma (for which he recommended a treatment of crushed woodlice in red wine!) and in his will passed his work on insects, including some 500 drawings, to his younger colleague, Thomas Moffett. Penny’s work drew on the works of both Conrad Gesner and Edward Wotton, both of whom planned works on insects but died before their completion. Sadly, Penny’s original work does not survive.

Keen to write his own book on insects, Moffett quickly assembled a volume, most of which was taken from Penny’s work but to which Moffett added sections on bees and spiders, the latter are now recognised as members of the arthropod class Arachnida, distinct from the class Insecta. Moffet’s contributions were often rather vague and very much followed Aristotle, whereas most of the sections on insects reflected Penny’s more direct style of writing and included findings based firmly on his own observations along with some experiments designed to uncover the life history of certain insects (Potts and Fear 2000). Penny defied Aristotle grouping caterpillars with their butterflies and moths rather than with worms.

In addition to specifying in his will that his manuscript on insects should pass to his colleague Thomas Moffett, he also bequeathed funds for the poor of Gressingham and Eskrigg (Whittaker 2021) and, a Puritan to the end, he stipulated that his burial at the church of St Andrew Undershaft in London, which still stands today, should be “without any ceremony, nor mourning apparel, nor ringing, nor singing.” Moffett also died prior to publication of the work, but his wife managed to rescue the manuscript and passed it to a surgeon at the Royal Court, Sir Theodore Mayerne, who was finally responsible for securing its publication in 1634, approximately 100 years after Penny was born.

By David B Sattelle, Fellow Commoner, Queens’ College, Cambridge and Emeritus Professor of Molecular Neurobiology, and Rebecca Hearnden, Sixth Form student at St Catherine’s School, Bramley, Surrey, UK.


Potts W.T.W and Fear L. (2000) ‘Thomas Penny, the first English entomologist’, Contrebis, Journal of the Lancaster Historical and Archaeological Society, XXV (2000), 21-30.

Raven C.E. English naturalists from Neckam to Ray. A study of the making of the modern world. (Cambridge University Press, 1947).

Sattelle D.B. ‘Invertebrate neurones, genomes, phenotypic and target-based screening; their contributions to the search for new chemical leads and new molecular targets for the control of pests, parasites and disease vectors’. Pesticide Biochemistry and Physiology, 187 (2022), 105-175.

Whittaker J. ‘Thomas Penny, a pioneering entomologist’. Antenna, 45:1 (2021), 21-22.

‘Thomas Penny’. The Royal College of Physicians: History of Munk’s Roll, 1825, <https://history.rcplondon.ac.uk/inspiring-physicians/thomas-penny&gt;

Photographs from Queens’ Old Library collection, except engraved portraits and frontispiece from Wikimedia Commons, and photograph of Professor Satelle by Edmund Smith.