Chemical Ecologist Tom Eisner: Who Knew?

Michael Jordan and Tom Eisner shared at least one thing in common: a rejection that hurt deeply and a recovery that ended amazingly.

Jordan, the second-highest-scoring NBA player scorer (5,987 points), "wasn't good enough" to make his high school varsity basketball team (at first). And the late Tom Eisner, the renowned Cornell University professor who went on to be known as "the father of chemical ecology," just "wasn't good enough" to be accepted at Cornell as an undergraduate student.

"Sorry, you didn't make it!" probably rang in their ears.

So when chemical ecologist and distinguished professor Walter Leal of the University of California, Davis, delivers the Founders' Memorial Award Lecture on Tom Eisner (1929-2011) at the Nov. 17-20 Entomological Society of America (ESA) meeting in America's Center in St. Louis, Mo., the Jordan-Eisner comparison will surface amid all of Eisner's incredible accomplishments, including his National Medal of Science award in 1994 from President Bill Clinton for his "seminal contributions in the fields of insect behavior and chemical ecology, and for his international efforts on biodiversity."

Leal will speak on "Tom Eisner--An Incorrigible Entomophile and Innovator Par Excellence" at the Founders' Breakfast  meeting that begins at 7:30 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 19.  His presentation, at 8:15, promises to be inspirational, educational and entertaining.  (And it's free to all ESA meeting registrants.)

ESA established the Founders' Memorial Award in 1958 to honor the memory of scientists providing outstanding contributions to entomology. 

Eisner is known as an exemplary scientist, teacher and leader whose research discoveries focused on how insects use their chemical substances as friends or foes: to attract mates or to defend from foes. He discovered how "a bombardier beetle creates a chemical reaction within its body and then ejects a boiling hot chemical from its abdomen." As Joe Rominiecki, ESA communications manager, said: “Notable among them was deciphering how the bombardier beetle defends itself with an internal exothermic chemical reaction, explosively sprayed at attackers. That discovery topped a lengthy list of revelations about the complex and often surprising biochemicals insects produce, from the bitter, predator-deterring taste of the cochineal scale's brilliant red pigment to the sticky foot secretions that allow the palmetto beetle to cling so tightly to leaf surfaces.“

Leal, whose career spans three decades (see Bug Squad blog) built his career on Eisner's work. So we asked Leal to name 10 interesting facts about Tom Eisner. He obliged.

  1. Tom Eisner was born in Nazi Germany, moved to Spain, grew up in Uruguay, moved to the United States, and lived the rest of life here.
  2. In 1969 Tom delivered the Founders' Memorial Lecture to honor Robert Snodgrass. This year he is being honored by the same memorial lecture.
  3. Tom was an excellent musician; he owned three Steinway Grands (two remain with his daughters and the other he gave to the Cornell Music Department
  4. Cornell University rejected his undergraduate application in 1947.
  5. After being rejected by Cornell, Tom attended community college and received both his bachelor's degree and doctorate from Harvard.
  6. Ten years after Cornell rejected his undergraduate application, Cornell hired him as an assistant professor. Tom kept a framed copy of his rejection letter from Cornell on his office wall, all during his career.
  7. Tom is considered one of the founding fathers of chemical ecology but he joked that this cannot be proved "without a paternity test."
  8. Tom humbly said he had no good ideas, but that he "got good data to support other people's ideas."
  9. One of Tom's many covers of Science appeared on 4th of July (1969) to highlight the “fireworks” from bombardier beetles.
  10. For an unknown reason, Tom never traveled by air. He loved to drive long stretches to allow time to connect thoughts and relive experiences.

Leal, whose distinguished career includes co-chair of the 2016 International Congress of Entomology (ICE), serves as a distinguished professor in the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and is a past chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology (now the Department of Entomology and Nematology).  In his research, Leal investigates the molecular basis of olfaction in insects and insect chemical communication. (See the Leal lab's work on DEET in Entomology Today.) 

And another factoid: Leal is the first UC Davis scientist selected to present the Founders' Memorial Lecture. (Medical entomologist Shirley Luckhart of the University of Idaho, formerly of UC Davis, delivered the lecture in 2018.)

One other factoid: Tom Eisner, born in Berlin, was multi-lingual in German, French, Spanish and later English. Leal, born in Brazil, speaks Portuguese, Japanese and English fluently.

Who knew?

(Editor's Note: Listen to Walter Leal's presentation on YouTube)