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FALL 2011
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In Memoriam: Thomas Eisner

Thomas and Maria Eisner
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Thomas Eisner and his wife, Maria, at the 2004 CALS Alumni Awards reception. Maria served as an indispensable member of his research team, becoming an expert in electron microscopy.
Thomas Eisner
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Thomas Eisner in his lab.

It was a love of insects that led Thomas Eisner to explore chemistry, biology, ecology, evolution, behavior, morphology, and even engineering. The resulting cross-disciplinary discoveries changed the field—and led to the creation of a new one.

Eisner joined the Cornell faculty in 1957 as an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology, and went on to uncover highly evolved processes and systems among insects, such as chemical defenses, that were previously unexplored.

Among his discoveries of remarkable biological phenomena were: unraveling the web-making process of spiders; explaining the explosive, high-temperature spray of the bombardier beetle and how it wards off predators; and understanding why the firefly, which does not bite or sting, is not eaten (it tastes terrible!). He referred to insects as “master chemists” and was an authority on their pheromones.

Considered the “father of chemical ecology” with his Cornell colleague and friend Jerrold Meinwald, Eisner was author or co-author of some 500 scientific articles. In 1994, he earned the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States, and his bestselling autobiography For Love of Insects won the Best Science Book in the 2004 Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Louis Thomas Prize for Writing.

Beloved by students and highly regarded by his colleagues for his genius and humility, Eisner was also a well-known 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. He was also a classical pianist, mentor, conservationist, memoirist. and humanitarian, leveraging his own prestige to help imprisoned scientists in the Soviet Union and “disappeared” scientists in South American dictatorships.

Eisner died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on March 25, at home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 81.