Courtesy of the University

Prof. Jerrold Meinwald was remembered by former students as a supportive mentor and talented musician.

April 29, 2018

National Medal of Science Winner, Co-Founder of Field of Chemical Ecology, Dies Aged 91

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Prof. Jerrold Meinwald, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus died aged 91 on April 23 in Ithaca. He was known for co-founding the field of chemical ecology and was awarded the 2014 National Medal of Science, the highest honor in science and engineering in the country.

Meinwald was born in 1927 in New York City and began his educational career at Brooklyn College and Queens College. After serving in the U.S. Navy as an electronics technician during World War II, he continued his education at the University of Chicago where he earned his bachelor of philosophy degree in 1947. He also earned a master’s degree in 1950 and a Ph.D. in 1952 from Harvard University.

After completing his Ph.D., Meinwald came to Cornell, where he continued his research on chemistry, chemical biology and the naturally occurring chemical compounds in insects and plants. He also researched the chemical signals that occurred between insects and plants.

In 1969, Meinwald was elected into the National Academy of Sciences. He served as the secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 2005 to 2016, of which he had been a member since 1970. Other honors he received include the Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry from the American Chemical Society in 2005, Grand Prix of la Maison de la Chimie in 2008, the 2013 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Chemistry and the Nakanishi Prize of the Chemical Society of Japan in 2014.

Throughout his career, Meinwald co-authored over 400 scientific articles and collaborated with entomologist Thomas Eisner, with whom he is credited for co-founding the field of chemical ecology.

After his passing, former students remembered his achievement, his supportiveness as a mentor and his interests outside his academic field.

J. Ramon Vargas M.S. ’83, a former student of Meinwald’s, said his experience at Meinwald’s lab was unique and memorable due to its interdisciplinary nature.

“In his particular lab, there were people that were working on isolating compounds from plants or from insects and you had people that were synthesizing — making — compounds,” Vargas said. “It was a very diverse laboratory and you got exposed to a lot of different aspects of organic chemistry.”

In addition to the collaborative learning environment, Meinwald was an approachable mentor to Vargas throughout his career.

“He was always willing to talk to me. He was a really good person. I was happy that he was a mentor of mine,” Vargas said, “I knew I always wanted to be a chemist and certainly, working in his labs did nothing but fortify that interest.”

Spencer Knapp ’72 Ph.D. ’75 took organic chemistry with Meinwald as his very first class at Cornell. He later began working with Meinwald in the late 1960s and described him as “unfailingly polite and kind to everyone.”

According to the students, Meinwald was always very supportive of students of his who came from different backgrounds. Matthew Gronquist Ph.D. ’02, who spent four years in the Marines prior to Cornell, said Meinwald always “made everybody in the group feel very comfortable.”

“He was really so genuinely nice and supportive, which isn’t always true in that setting,” Gronquist told The Sun. “I always think of him when I am dealing with students.”

Many students continued to work with Meinwald even after he joined other colleges. Allan Wissner, who studied with Meinwald from 1972 to 1974 as a postdoctoral student, followed Meinwald to University of California, San Diego — where he briefly worked as a professor of chemistry — and later back to Cornell, where he returned to work for the remainder of his career.

“He gave his postdoctoral [students] a lot of freedom to do what they wanted,” Wissner told The Sun, “He was a terrific mentor, and he was able to teach me a lot.”

Douglas Weibel Ph.D ’02 worked with Meinwald during the later part of his career. He said Meinwald was an avid flutist and encouraged others to foster their love of music.

“I remember one day being in the lab with one of my colleagues and we were just jamming out in the lab playing instruments,” Weibel said. “We noticed [that] he was watching us and he cracked a big smile, and gave us a thumbs up. He was a cool guy.”

Meinwald performed in many concerts at Cornell around 1952 when he first came here. He performed in 1957 with the Cornell University Trio that comprised of Ivan Waldbauer, a pianist and former professor at Brown, Prof. John Hsu the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus and Sheldon Kurland, a cellist and arranger.

In a music review published on the March 4, 1957 issue of The Sun, Meinwald was described as “articulating beautifully” during his performance.

Meinwald is survived by his wife of 37 years, Charlotte Greenspan, and his three daughters. According to the University, funeral services were held at Temple Beth-El Ithaca on April 25.