The life and times of Tom Eisner, father of chemical ecology, photographer, musician and champion of environmental and human rights
May 6, 2011 12:01 PM   Subscribe

Thomas Eisner, a Cornell biologist best known for his extensive work (PDF) with chemical ecology, passed away on Friday, March 25th, 2011. Eisner was more than a "bug guy," he was one of the "original guiding lights" in the study of chemical interactions of organisms, most often focusing on insects. He also was a photographer, pianist and occasional conductor (PDF), and conservation activist. More on his fascinating life inside.

Thomas Eisner was born on June 25, 1929 in Berlin, Germany. Eisner's father, Hans Eisner, was a chemist of Jewish origin, and the family left Germany in 1933 with the rise of Nazi Germany. The family moved to Spain, only to move again because of the Spanish Civil War, fled to France, and then to Uruguay, "an entomological paradise" in Eisner's own words. There, the budding scientist figured out he could safely put a particularly poisonous caterpillar on his hand because it had no poisons on its belly, and he showed the bullies his command and understanding of nature at a young age.

Eisner moved with his family to the United States in 1947. In Massachusetts, Eisner had an experience quite similar to Darwin's encounter with a Bombardier beetle. This beetle would become his "signature bug," which he would study in detail.

Eisner enrolled first in Champlain College in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and transferred two years later to Harvard. It was there that he learned his love of insects could be more than a hobby. He stayed at Harvard and there earned his bachelor's degree in 1951. The next year he married Maria Lobell, who would become one of his closest collaborators, and a fellow lover of music. Eisner continued at Harvard, where he quickly became friends with his classmate E. O. Wilson, and the two of them took a 12,000 mile field trip that crisscrossed the US to study insects and see the nation. Eisner earned his doctorate in 1955.

Cornell University had denying Eisner admission as an undergraduate student, but he was then hired there as a member of the entomology faculty in 1957. The professor displayed his initial rejection letter in his Cornell office. At Cornell, Eisner helped found the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in 1964, where he worked until his death. Here is a video of Eisner from 1999 teaching BIONB221: Introduction to Behavior, where he discussed "chemical prospecting." (Related: 2008 course syllabus, viewed in Google Docs - with Tom Eisner still included as an active professor).

His love of insects was infectious. In 1996, Thomas Eisner was called by an actress in New York who wanted to talk with the renowned etymologist. Not just any actress, but a then-recent Oscar winner, who was working on a new film that featured insects. She visited him, and talked to one of his classes. The class "was not the essence of chemical communication," but everyone enjoyed themselves. It didn't end there. Mira Sorvino mentioned her Labor Day Monday spent with an etymologist on Late Night with David Letterman, which got back to Cornell. Eisner then named a chemical found in the defensive secretion of Thermonectus marmoratus (common name: Sunburst Diving Beetle) after Sorvino.

Eisner shared his love of nature and multi-legged creatures not only through scientific publications, but also through images. The 1989 documentary Secret Weapons won the Grand Award at the New York Film Festival and was named Best Science Film by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He also shared his love of the natural world through two books, published in 2005 and 2007 respectively: For Love of Insects (Google books preview) and Secret Weapons (preview): Defenses of Insects, Spiders, Scorpions, and Other Many-Legged Creatures.

In 2000, there was a celebration at Cornell for Eisner's 43 years with the University. The traditional title was a Festschrift, which Eisner thought was "too German," but his counter-offer of "a pre-posthumous wake" was too morbid for the event's organizers. In the end, they settled on "A Symposium Celebrating the Career of Thomas Eisner: Learning From Nature."

Eisner's artistic eye may come from his mother, Margarete Heil Eisner. He gave an illustrated lecture on her art called "Through My Mother's Eyes" in 2003.

Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a few years ago, Tom Eisner was planning for his end, but he did not stop spreading joy and knowledge. In 2006 he created and led a new course on issues in the environment, helped by guest lectureres and audio amplification. He gave the piano that had resided in his laboratory to another Cornell biologist, and gave a 14-year-old budding etymologist his old burlap field bag, full of tools, jars and books that he had as a young boy including the first one he ever owned, a butterfly guide that his parents gave him for his 12th birthday, back in 1942.

Thomas Eisner died in his home in Ithaca, New York, and is survived his wife, three daughters, a sister, and six grandchildren.

Posthumous: Memories of Eisner's lectures from 1998, including some video clips he used in those lectures.

* E. O. Wilson - The life of an ant colony, with a touch of poetic license, and the EOWilson tag
* Web of Stories, Previously
posted by filthy light thief (7 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
One last bit from me: The recent Radiolab episode Glad Somebody Likes Bugs features an interview with Eiseman that was recorded "a few years ago." It's a fun listen, with Eiseman talking about his lifelong fascination with insects, the smell of insects, and his dreams of being an insect.

The first 10 minutes and 40 seconds are about the botfly larva infection in Jerry Coyne's head. It's a bit graphic, so skip to 10:41 for Eiseman's bit, it's worth it.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:27 PM on May 6, 2011

And who is this "Eisman" of whom you speak?
posted by DavidandConquer at 12:54 PM on May 6, 2011

He's gone now, and I'm back to bed for more rest. No more posting when sick.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:55 PM on May 6, 2011

Tom Eisner was of the many "famous" Cornell professors I encountered as a bookseller in Ithaca who were intimidating on paper but utterly charming in person. He was a true inspiration to those who aspire to a fusion of science and creativity.

posted by Glomar response at 12:59 PM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by polymath at 5:38 PM on May 6, 2011

My family knew him quite well. He will be missed.
posted by yeolcoatl at 7:37 PM on May 6, 2011

For some reason, the Eisner moved with his family to the United States in 1947 link is borked. This NY Times link should work.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:43 AM on May 7, 2011

« Older Hemp History Week   |   In Space No One Can Hear You Disco Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments