Issue Date: April 18, 2011
Thomas Eisner, 81, a prominent authority on animal behavior, chemical ecology, and evolution, and the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Chemical Ecology at Cornell University, died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on March 25, at home in Ithaca, N.Y.
Born in Berlin in 1929, Eisner moved with his Jewish family to Barcelona just as Adolf Hitler was ascending to power in 1933. A few years later, they fled the Spanish Civil War by moving to Uruguay, where Eisner discovered an affinity for the many beautiful bugs he found there as a boy.
After moving to the U.S. in 1947, Eisner earned a B.A. degree in biology in 1951 and a Ph.D. in biology in 1955, both from Harvard University. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1957 in the department of entomology. In 1964, he joined the department of neurobiology and behavior, which he helped to establish and where he worked until his death. He also served as director of the Cornell Institute for Research in Chemical Ecology.
In his research, Eisner drew from the fields of chemistry, biology, ecology, evolution, behavior, and morphology in his effort to understand insect physiology, adaptation, and behavior. Collaborating extensively with Jerrold Meinwald, a Cornell chemistry professor, he made groundbreaking discoveries to reveal the chemistry that insects use to defend against predators, trap prey, attract mates, and protect their offspring.
Eisner was the author or coauthor of roughly 500 scientific articles and nine books, including “For Love of Insects.” He earned numerous awards, including the 1994 National Medal of Science, and was a member of many organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.
Eisner was also a celebrated nature photographer. His film “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. A devoted environmentalist and conservationist and an advocate of human rights, he served on the board of directors of the National Audubon Society, the National Scientific Council of the Nature Conservancy, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the World Resources Institute Council.
He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Maria; and three daughters, Christina Brown, Yvonne, and Vivian.
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