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The bombardier beetle and Tom Eisner's truth

Tom Eisner, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Chemical Ecology at Cornell, died March 25. Here, Roger Segelken, who reported on much of Eisner's work through his 28 years with the Cornell News Service, reflects on Eisner's legacy

The disheartening diagnosis of Parkinson's disease was never an excuse to slack off for Tom Eisner.

His strength waning, in 2006 he created and led a new course on issues in the environment -- with noted guest lecturers pinch-hitting when he couldn't teach and with electronics amplifying his voice when he could. He had intended the new course to be a one-time last gasp in behalf of something he cared about deeply -- nature. But the course became so popular and oversubscribed, Tom felt obliged to repeat again and again.

He pledged to finish up with his graduate students and research associates, giving them all they had signed up for -- and more. The annual collecting trips to Florida (by car, always, because that insect expert refused to fly) had to cease. The piano in his Corson-Mudd laboratory -- played expertly for relaxation and companionship with other scientists, including Jerry Meinwald on flute, fell silent -- and was rolled away and given to another Cornell biologist.

Although lack of musical ability was never a deal breaker, Tom preferred to work with scientists who shared his passion for the arts. He told the story of first spotting a scruffy bicyclist on the campus with what looked like a cello on his back; and how pleased he was when the young Roger Payne showed up and asked to join the Eisner lab -- decades before the world-famous whale scientist was invited back to lecture on his discoveries.

Tom knew that molecular biologists had a lot to bring to the lab bench. Yet he maintained there was just as much to learn from observing biological beings as they went about their business -- self-defense, nourishment, courtship and other monkey business -- intact in their natural environment.

Scores of major discoveries -- some with practical applications and others functioning simply to expand our awe of the natural world -- resulted from Tom's collaborations with scientific colleagues whose expertise he respected. Hardly single-handedly, he invented a new science. When he was dubbed the father of chemical ecology, Tom shrugged off the "honor" and demanded a DNA paternity test.

In the final years and months, Tom focused (with able help from his wife and partner-in-research, Maria Eisner, and his longtime office assistant, Janis Strope) on "closing out the books" and writing some, too. He knew his lifetime love affair with science could be inspirational -- or at least instructive -- to many.

Maria labored to digitize Tom's amazing collection of photographs (many showing, in exquisite detail, bugs doing what the birds-and-bees do naturally) and photomicrographs. He had developed his own (subsequently, much-copied) techniques with the electron microscope and with ultraviolet light photography. Scientific images and other scholarly materials were prepared for transfer to the Library of Congress -- although some things will be in the Cornell faculty archives.

Though first rejected from Cornell as an undergrad, the university came to appreciate the outspoken up-and-comer. National and international accolades, election to scientific academies, ample support from granting agencies (and covers of the top scientific journals) were hard to ignore.

And Tom leveraged his own growing prestige to help others -- including imprisoned scientists in the Soviet Union and "disappeared" scientists in South American dictatorships. He dueled with creationists and with Newt Gingrich. Along with the likes of E.O. Wilson and Paul Ehrlich, Eisner appointed himself to what they called The Club of Earth -- making indignant pronouncements about important issues.

In a sometimes self-effacing way, Eisner knew he was important -- to his students and the university, to his field of science and to government policymakers who wouldn't always listen, and to the natural Earth he loved above all. His signature bug, the bombardier beetle, had its boiling chemicals to sling. Tom Eisner had the truth.

H. Roger Segelken was a science writer at Cornell, 1980-2008.

 

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