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EUGENE EISENMANN (1906-1981)


Eisenmann did not write much, but his name appears in many books: The Imperative Call, by Alexander Skutch, is dedicated to him, as are Robert Ridgely’s Birds of Panama and Birds of South America, volume 1. After Eisenmann’s death, in 1981, the sixth edition of the AOU Check-list was dedicated to him, and in 1985, an entire volume of essays on Neotropical ornithology was published in his honor and memory. The closest he came to being the author of a major work was to be noted as “Collaborator” on the title page of Meyer de Schauensee’s Species of Birds of South America, after declining the honor of being coauthor.

Collaborator, however, is a good description of the role Eisenmann played in Neotropical ornithology. He was not, by training, a zoologist; he was a partner in a prominent law firm who retired early to devote himself to his real passion, ornithology. In 1957, at the age of fifty-one, he became a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, a position he held for the rest of his life.  His range of scientific interests was wide and included systematics, distribution of species, and a particular fascination with finding the appropriate vernacular name for a bird. “Gene was what I would call a messy worker,” a colleague recalled.  “His desk at the AMNH was covered by several crumbling skyscrapers made up of letters, manuscripts, notes, and reprints, amidst which an antique manual typewriter occupied a central position. Remarkably adept at typing – and at everything else – with his only one functional hand [the result of a birth defect], Gene would produce streams of letters to correspondents all over the Neotropics, spending huge amounts of time to answer all sorts of inquiries. Extraordinary generosity with his knowledge and his time was one of Gene’s most remarkable traits” (Vuilleumier 1995, 99).