Tribute to Ant Specialist E. O. Wilson

According to his obituary in The New York Times, Dr. E.O. Wilson passed away on Sunday, December 26, 2021. He will be greatly missed by myrmecologists around the world.

Anyone who is interested in ants has probably read at least one of Wilson’s books, including the groundbreaking tome The Ants written with Bert Hölldobler. The Ants won them a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.

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On a more personal note, my graduate advisor at Cornell University, Dr. William L. Brown, Jr. — Bill — was a close friend and colleague of Dr. Wilson’s. He told many stories about their adventures together while traveling the world in search of ants. Erich Hoyt chronicled some of their experiences in his 1996 book, The Earth Dwellers:  Adventures in the Land of Ants.

While I was at Cornell during the 1980s, Bill was helping E. O. Wilson with his work on bigheaded ants, the genus Pheidole. It is a large and complex group. According to Hoyt’s book on page 61, when Brown asked him when they would finish, Wilson said:

“We’ll probably go out on Pheidole.”


Public domain image by Alex Wild.

Bill passed away in 1997, several years before Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus was finally published in 2003 by Harvard University Press. On the other hand, Ed Wilson had many, many more publications to go.


If you knew him, my condolences. If you did not and want to find out more about this man who was passionate about ants, you can read one of E. O. Wilson’s many books or the 2021 biography, Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature by Richard Rhodes.

2 Replies to “Tribute to Ant Specialist E. O. Wilson”

  1. My spouse (Jeff Conner, whom I met at Cornell) took a course with Bill Brown in insect evolution (he thinks maybe 1981?) This is what he wrote on twitter today about E. O. Wilson’s passing: He was very generous with his time as my undergrad advisor. My grad advisor, Tom Eisner, told me that when the two of them were in grad school together Ed told him that “it will be easy to excel in this field.” Turned out to be true for the two of them anyway.

    Small world–maybe you knew one another at Cornell? Maybe we passed by one another?

  2. Buffy, I didn’t know you were at Cornell! I started in Fall 1983. I had a class with Tom Eisner, too, and one winter tended the greenhouses with the swallowtails.

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