The Eulogizer: Insect biologist, self-serve gas station entrepreneur


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at Read previous columns here.   

Thomas Eisner, 81, insect biologist

Thomas Eisner, a biologist who was awarded the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States, in 1994, died March 25 at 81 in Ithaca, N.Y. Eisner identified the chemical tools used by animals and insects to fight off attack, attract mates and communicate.

His work “exposed a landscape of seduction and deceit, full of dramatic survival stories that he told in scholarly journals, popular books and interviews,” the Washington Post said. One of Eisner’s most famous discoveries came after a beetle squirted him with a stinky brown liquid that he determined was “employing a weapon system akin to the buzz bombs used by Nazis during World War II.” 

Eisner, a professor at Cornell University starting in the 1950s, was the former director of the Cornell Institute for Research in Chemical Ecology. He was the author or co-author of 500 scientific articles and nine books, including the award-winning memoir “For Love of Insects.” The Cornell website offered a detailed dossier of his scientific achievements.

Entomologist Edward Wilson compared Eisner to a pointillist painter in a 1992 New Yorker profile: “He daubs touches of color on a broad canvas, which at first seem to be a random splattering of bright pigment, but, as more and more spaces are filled in, reveal an extremely interesting picture of a little-known part of the living world.”

“He did a lot of really fascinating studies on insects that I think caught the attention of a lot of young people,” said plant biologist Eloy Rodriguez. “He was almost poetic in the way he did his research.”

Eisner was born in Berlin and fled with his parents to Spain in the early 1930s. From there they went to France and Uruguay, where Eisner collected caterpillars, beetles and maggots, until moving to New York in the 1940s. He graduated from Harvard University in 1951 and married Maria Lobell, who also became his scientific collaborator.

Eisner was a nature photographer, as well. His documentary “Secret Weapons” won a New York Film Festival award. Recently he brokered a prospecting partnership between Merck & Co. and Costa Rica intended to engender revenue for the preservation of Costa Rican biodiversity.

He was on the boards of the National Audubon Society, National Scientific Council of the Nature Conservancy, Union of Concerned Scientists, and other nature and environmental groups. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Bernard Roth, 95, gas station entrepreneur

Bernard Roth, an entrepreneur who built a major company from a single gas station in Los Angeles by promoting self-service gas pumps, and who later became a philanthropist, died March 27 at 95.

Roth bought his first gas station in 1938 and later grew the business by getting rid of attendants and selling fuel for 5 cents a gallon below his competitors at a time when gas was far less than $1 a gallon. He took ads out in local newspapers that said, "We don’t wash your windows. We just sell you gas for less."

The major oil retailers fought the concept by calling it dangerous, and the self-serve model did not spread throughout the industry until the oil price shocks of the 1970s.

“Bernie was a true giant and innovator in the retail gasoline business,” said George Babikian, former president of ARCO Products Co. “He transformed the traditional corner service station into one of the most powerful business models in the nation.”

Roth’s company, World Oil Corp., operates gas stations throughout California, as well as asphalt production, oil recycling, trucking, marine terminal operations and real estate development.

In later years, Roth started the Florence and Bernard B. Roth Family Foundation and donated millions of dollars to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among other entities.

“Bernie was a true original and a very proud Jew,” said Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Roth was a member of the synagogue for more than 70 years.

Roth, a St. Louis native, moved to Los Angeles at 15. Seven years later he bought his first gas station, at Florence and Normandie avenues in South Los Angeles.

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