COUPER, WILLIAM, entomologist and naturalist; fl. 1860–86.

Nothing is known of William Couper’s youth but he is believed to have arrived in Canada in 1843 and established himself in Toronto. He worked as a typographer in the printing shop of Henry Rowsell. Couper seems to have followed this trade for much of his life, as well as giving private instruction in taxidermy. After a brief stay at Trois-Rivières in 1860, he lived in Quebec City until 1869, in Ottawa from 1869 to 1870, in Montreal from 1871 to 1884, and, lastly, in New York City from 1884 to 1886. He probably died at his son’s residence in Troy, N.Y., about 1890.

At a time when the natural sciences especially were not well developed in Canada, Couper took an interest in ornithology, ichthyology, and botany. His most important contribution, however, was undoubtedly to entomology. He first became known in this field because of his excellent and original collections which won him praise and awards at exhibitions in Toronto in 1852 and 1856. Couper did not confine his interests to the insects themselves; his collections also included nests, cocoons, and various structures which both illustrated the building instinct of hexapods and facilitated the identification of species. In 1863 he announced that he had assembled more than 6,000 specimens, mostly vegetable matter, bearing traces of activity by insects in the larval or adult stages.

Couper wrote many articles and notes which were published particularly in Canadian and American periodicals. Taking up a number of subjects, his writings are still of much interest because they were the result of personal observation and experience. He noted the arrival and departure of migrating birds, reported the presence of rare species in various places, and wrote extensively about insect-eating birds. Contained in his writing on his favourite subject, entomology, are some of the first references to the different species of insects found near Quebec City, at locations on the north shore of the St Lawrence, and on the island of Anticosti, as well as discussions of insects harmful to crops, such as the apple borer, the cabbage butterfly, and the onion fly. Couper also established a list of the hymenoptera found on Montreal Island, and took a special interest in coleoptera, publishing taxonomical descriptions of 15 new species. In the Canadian Sportsman and Naturalist, a journal he began in Montreal in 1881 and published for three years, he focused particularly on types of game in Canada as well as hunting and fishing regulations; in one series of articles he even described Canadian museums of the period.

Whenever the occasion arose William Couper was an enthusiastic supporter of entomology. He became a corresponding member of the Entomological Society of Philadelphia, and in 1864, a year after the Entomological Society of Canada was organized in Toronto, he helped to establish a branch in Quebec City. In 1873 he became a founder and first president of the Montreal branch of the society which in 1871 had become the Entomological Society of Ontario. For several years its monthly meetings were held at his house. Unlike the Quebec branch, the one at Montreal developed steadily, and in 1951 became known as the Entomological Society of Quebec.

Rodolphe O. Paradis

In addition to the articles which he wrote for his own journal, the Canadian Sportsman and Naturalist (Montreal), 1881–83, William Couper was the author of a large number of notes and articles in the Canadian Journal, 1853–56, the Canadian Entomologist (London, Ont.), 1869–80, the Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, 1857–65, the Proc. of the Entomological Soc. of Philadelphia, 1863, the Trans. of the Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, 1864–65, and the Annual report (Montreal) of the Montreal Horticultural Soc. and Fruit Growers’ Assoc. of the Prov. of Que., 1879.

Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis, 83. R.-O. Paradis, “Étude biographique et bibliographique de William Couper, membre fondateur et premier président de la Société entomologique du Québec,” Soc. entomologique du Qué., Annales (Québec), 19 (1974). 4–15. C. J. S. Bethune, “The rise and progress of entomology in Canada,” RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 4 (1898), sect.iv: 155–65. Léon Provancher, “Naturalistes canadiens,” Le Naturaliste canadien (Cap-Rouge, Qué.), 5 (1873). 131.

Cite This Article

Rodolphe O. Paradis, “COUPER, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 25, 2024,

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Author of Article:   Rodolphe O. Paradis
Title of Article:   COUPER, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   July 25, 2024