E.O. Wilson, a Distinguished Eagle Scout and visionary scientist who was considered “Darwin’s natural heir” and earned the nickname “The Ant Man” for his work in entomology, died on Dec. 26 in Massachusetts. He was 92.
Wilson was an accomplished author whose writing both influenced fellow scientists and gained mass appeal, inspiring generations of readers to take better care of the planet.
“A relentless synthesizer of ideas, his courageous scientific focus and poetic voice transformed our way of understanding ourselves and our planet,” Paula J. Ehrlich, CEO & President of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, said in a statement. “His gift was a deep belief in people and our shared human resolve to save the natural world.”
Wilson published more than 30 books, including two for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction: On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991). (The latter was used in creating the pamphlet for the Insect Study merit badge.)
Wilson even has two species named after him — Myrmoderus eowilsoni, an antbird found in Peru, and Miniopteru wilsoni, a bat discovered in Mozambique.
In 2018, Wilson said that having a new species named after him is an honor akin to receiving a Nobel Prize — “because it’s such a rarity to have a true new species discovered.”
There is no Nobel Prize awarded in the biosciences. But in 1980, the Royal Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize, established the Crafoord Prize to cover areas not covered by Nobel Prizes, such as biology, oceanography, mathematics and astronomy.
Wilson received the Crafoord Prize in 1990 for his theory of island biogeography, in which he explained, among other discoveries, why some smaller islands have more species of birds than larger islands.
Influenced by Scouting
Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Ala., on June 10, 1929. His parents divorced when Wilson was 7.
Wilson’s dad was a traveling auditor in the Roosevelt-era Rural Electrification Administration, so the family moved from town to town nearly every year. He attended 13 different public schools in nine towns.
Unable to rely on a steady human presence in his life, Wilson found comfort in the flora and fauna that surrounded him — his “companion of choice.”
“Animals and plants I could count on,” he wrote in his 1994 memoir Naturalist. “Human relationships were more difficult.”
When Wilson was in high school in Mobile, Ala., a prolific career in scientific research and writing might not have seemed a natural evolution. After all, as he wrote in The New York Times in 2014, Wilson read just two books cover to cover during high school.
The first was The Virginian by Owen Wister. The second: his 1942 copy of The Boy Scout Handbook.
“To this classic of literature (thus defined if literature is understood as writing that stirs the soul and a classic as a work that contributes to the growth of a civilization), I give credit for my secondary education,” Wilson wrote.
He then lists the many essential skills a young person could learn in the 680 pages of the Handbook — everything from camping to patriotism to mapmaking.
“In the midst of all this are incomplete but serviceable field guides to North American trees, birds, insects and mammals, and to the planets and constellations,” Wilson wrote.
In 2012, Wilson told the Boston Globe that he still had that copy of the Handbook 70 years later, calling it “basically my textbook in high school.” The schools in Alabama “weren’t very good back then,” Wilson says, so “the Boy Scouts of America gave me my education.”
Upon reflection, Wilson told the Globe that his Handbook was “the single most influential book that I ever had.”
Wilson became an Eagle Scout in 1944 — at age 15.
Digging into curiosity
On Scout campouts and in his backyard, Wilson loved investigating insects. He was known to flip over logs and dig holes to find all the bugs crawling just out of view.
It was during one of these impromptu digs in Alabama that Wilson discovered the first colony of imported fire ants in the United States. He’s credited as being the first to identify these invasive fire ants, which arrived in the U.S. on ships from South America.
“I believe I was the first to find that ant in the U.S., certainly the first to study it in any detail,” Wilson told American Entomologist in 2014.
Later, in college, Wilson would write that these South American fire ants were spreading rapidly across the South — a noteworthy discovery at the time but no surprise to anyone living in that region today.
Finding his calling
Wilson’s high school transcript was mediocre. “I can’t remember the name of a single teacher,” he wrote in 2014.
He applied to Vanderbilt but didn’t get in. He tried the Army, but they said no because Wilson was partially blind — an impairment caused by a boyhood fishing accident in which Wilson caught the hook in his right eye.
“Finally, the University of Alabama admitted me, and everything abruptly changed,” Wilson wrote. “The sun rose on my horizon.”
It rose quickly, too. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years and was admitted to Harvard to earn his doctorate. By age 29, Wilson was a tenured professor at Harvard.
He taught organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard for 46 years before retiring in 2002. While there, Wilson is credited with creating two scientific disciplines: island biogeography and sociobiology. He also participated in research expeditions to places like Cuba, Mexico, Australia, Fiji, Sri Lanka and Mozambique.
Later in his career, Wilson wrote and spoke publicly about the importance of preserving diverse species. The man who had seen so much knew that our fragile Earth had even more to show us.
Less than 10% of the Earth’s species have scientific names, Wilson said in 1993, making ours “a still mostly unexplored planet.”
“The diversity of life on Earth,” he says, “is far greater than even most biologists recognize.”
All that pioneering work made Wilson something of a rockstar, says Bill Steele, retired director of the National Eagle Scout Association and a Distinguished Eagle Scout (and someone who also has a species named after him).
Steele’s partner of many years is Dr. Diana Tomchick, a research scientist at the UT Southwestern Medical Center. Together, they have been lucky enough to meet a number of scientists, explorers and other famous people through their work.
“We have met Buzz Aldrin, James Cameron, Neil deGrasse Tyson and other celebrities. Diana is indifferent about it,” Steele says. “Not so with Dr. E.O. Wilson.”
As they were preparing to attend The Explorers Club Annual Dinner in 2009 in New York City, Tomchick noticed that Wilson would be there to receive the club’s top honor.
“She was starstruck and insisted that we go to a bookstore in Manhattan, buy one of his books, and ask him to autograph it that night,” Steele says. “It worked out, and we met and talked with him. He was friendly and humble. To Diana, I have called him ‘the rock star to scientists.'”
The Boys’ Life rock star
Boys’ Life magazine took notice, too, calling Wilson “the world’s most famous entomologist.”
In June 1996, the magazine featured Wilson in a four-page story about ants — those “lean, mean fighting machines” that have us “outnumbered in a big way.”
“If you could put all the ants in the world on a bathroom scale and all humans on another, we’d weigh the same,” BL wrote.
Calling him “The Ant Man,” BL wrote how Wilson searched the world for the most exotic ants he could find. Using outdoor skills he learned in Scouting, Wilson hiked up steep, muddy trails in the South Pacific searching for species humans hadn’t seen for centuries.
Dinner wasn’t the typical Scouting fare of hot dogs or dehydrated meal kits. Out there, he ate wild pigeons and the grubs of long-horned beetles picked out of decaying logs. He would roast those grubs like marshmallows on a stick.
“I felt like a real explorer,” Wilson told BL. “It was the greatest physical adventure of my life.”