June 25, 1929 - March 25, 2011
Election Year: 1969
Scientific Discipline: Evolutionary Biology
Membership Type: Member
Thomas Eisner is regarded as the father of chemical ecology, contributing to the fields of arthropod morphology, cytology, and social behavior. He focused much of his research on insect chemical defenses against predation. Noting that some chemicals in the environment served no apparent metabolic function, he elucidated that an organism’s chemo-sensitivity plays a large role in evolution and its interactions within the biosphere. Eisner was a conservationist and promoted chemical prospecting; he discovered many compounds that were pharmaceutically active or had other economic uses, such as repellants.
His most famous research was on the chemical composition and mechanism of the bombardier beetle’s toxic spray. Using modern equipment, he deduced that the beetle stores hydroquinones and hydrogen peroxide in separate compartments within its body. When the two chemicals mix with the enzymes in the organism’s reaction chamber, the beetle can accurately aim the noxious liquid at near-boiling temperatures at predators.
Eisner earned his BA degree and PhD in biology from Harvard University in 1955. In 1957 he joined the Department of Entomology at Cornell University and in 1964 helped to found the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, where he served until he passed away. Eisner authored and coauthored over five hundred scientific articles and was a credited nature photographer. He was the director for the Cornell Institute for Research in Chemical Ecology and served on the board of directors for the National Audubon Society and the National Scientific Council of the Nature Conservancy. In 2008 he won the John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science from the National Academy of Sciences