Thomas Eisner, ESA Fellow (1987)

Dr. Thomas Eisner (deceased 25 March 2011), the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Chemical Ecology at Cornell University, was elected as Fellow in 1987. Eisner is recognized as one of the founders of the field of chemical ecology for his work on the chemical interactions determinant in the lives of insects, his “beasts of choice.”

Eisner was born in Berlin, Germany on 25 June 1929. With the rise of the Nazis, his family moved to Barcelona, Spain in 1933 and to Uruguay shortly after. In 1947 his family finally settled in the U.S. For Eisner, his love of nature and insects began at a young age “it was presumed to take priority over schooling,” he notes in the acknowledgements to his award winning popular science piece, For Love of Insects (2003). Eisner’s inquisitive nature as a youth in Uruguay served him well later in life as he earned a bachelor’s (1951) and then a Ph.D. (1955) from Harvard University at the age of 26. It was during these early years at Harvard that he lay the foundation of what was to be a lifetime of discovery.

Shortly after graduating, Eisner found a home at Cornell University; it would be his home for the next 55 years. At Cornell, Eisner met a young chemist by the name of Jerrold Meinwald and formed a partnership that lasted his entire tenure at that institution. Together, Eisner interpreting the biology and Meinwald interpreting the chemistry, they laid out the groundwork for chemical ecology. Also at Cornell, Eisner met Maria, his wife and research colleague. Over his life-long exploration, Eisner published over 400 scientific papers, 7 books, and several documentaries on his findings. He investigated the chemical interactions between vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants, but insects have been his organism of choice for the multiple ways they use chemicals for mating, feeding, and defense. Not for want of things to do, Eisner was also an accomplished pianist and photographer.

Eisner was awarded the Founder’s Memorial Award by ESA in 1969 for his contributions to insect ecology and chemical ecology. He received numerous institutional, national, and international awards over his career including the prestigious National Medal of Science in 1994. Eisner held positions as the director of the Cornell Institute for Research in Chemical Ecology (1993–2006) and as adviser to national committees on population growth, human rights, conservation, and various other scientific topics. His filmSecret Weapons won the best film at the New York Film Festival and was acclaimed as Best Science Film (1984) by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

(updated August, 2011)