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Remembering Ellis MacLeod

Ellis G. MacLeod, 1928-1997

Ellis G. MacLeod was born September 3, 1928. An underage Ellis joined the maritime services as a wiper in the belly of a ship applying oil to engine parts. During World War II, he transferred to the U.S. Army Aircorps, where he was stationed in Hawaii and the South Pacific as a radar man. After the war, Ellis turned down a job offer from Philco Electric, and instead decided to use his GI bill to go to college. He entered the University of Maryland and began studying physics. There he met Morna in 1950 and got married. Children began arriving—Lani (1952, Hawaiian for "heavenly"), Mark (1954), and Laurie (1956).

After taking a biology course at Maryland, Ellis decided the field was more interesting than physics. He continued there in the Department of Zoology and obtained a master’s degree. While at Maryland, he was an instructor in charge of laboratories in a large course in introductory zoology. During his undergraduate years he was involved in a variety of money-making ventures, including a 149-acre farm in Maryland for raising pigs and a year away from college to sell shoes.

Ellis began his Ph.D. studies at Maryland but in 1961 was invited to come to Harvard by Dr. Frank Carpenter. He first obtained a Ph.D. in 1964 and then staying on as a postdoctoral fellow until 1969. His thesis was a comparative study of the functional morphology of the head and cervix of the larvae of Neuroptera; his postdoctoral work involved describing the ecology and systematics of the Chrysopidae. Specific interests within ecology included mating behavior of the adults, defensive mechanisms, and environmental control of diapause. Within systematics, Ellis reinvestigated relationships among neuropteran taxa using chromosome cytology. At Harvard, too, under the influence of Dr. Frank Carpenter, Ellis developed an interest in insect paleontology that would prove to be lifelong.

During his studies at Harvard, Ellis taught in the summers at Brandeis University and reared large quantities of monarchs for use in schools. After completing his Ph.D., he received an offer from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and the University of Illinois. He decided to come to UIUC because the offer included his own microscope. Although his research interests were wide-ranging while at Illinois, he had a particular interest in Neuroptera and conducted research on aspects of their biology, including defensive behavior of berothids, life history of Mantispidae, and, in collaboration with Dr. Hugh Robertson, molecular biology of transposable elements in Chrysopidae. Among his last publications was a 1996 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the function of the stalk supporting the eggs of lacewings.

Dr. MacLeod’s greatest contribution to entomology, however, was through his exemplary teaching. Ellis’ initial teaching assignment in the department was ENT 103, the undergraduate general education course. Despite the fact that students generally take such classes under duress, ENT 103 consistently had enormous enrollments, often exceeding 300 students, and every year, the course was enthusiastically received. Enrollments dropped, however, when the university eliminated a laboratory requirement for general education biology.

Dr. MacLeod then assumed responsibility for the insect systematics core course for graduate students and advanced undergraduate majors, refashioned it as his own, and taught it until he died. The course was widely regarded by graduate students as their capstone classroom experience at UIUC and he was routinely named to the Incomplete List of Faculty Rated Excellent by Their Students as a result of his efforts in ENT 302.

Ellis’ versatility in the classroom was exemplified, however, by his teaching efforts outside his specialty. For Genetics & Development, with which he was affiliated, he taught the introductory Cells and Tissues course, again to hundreds of appreciative students; for Entomology, he participated in teaching BIOL 104, Animal Biology for nonmajors, and was an active participant in the ENT 426 advanced topic seminars. In 1994, in collaboration with plant systematics professor Stephen Downie, Ellis developed and offered the first advanced systematics class on the UIUC campus. Through his mastery of teaching and with the depth and breadth of his knowledge he influenced and shaped the biological interests of several thousand undergraduate and graduate students (as well as faculty and staff). In recognition of his excellence in the classroom, he received the William F. Prokasy Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences in 1989. Dr. MacLeod’s teaching extended well beyond the classroom, however; his knowledge of insects (and of biology in general) was encyclopedic and he was an irreplaceable source of information for fellow faculty, graduate students, and visiting scientists.

Dr. MacLeod is survived by his wife, his children, and seven grandchildren, Annamarie, Ebin, Jacob, Gary, Ben, Matthew, and Kate. In his memory, Dr. Edward O. Wilson, Pelligrino Professor of Biology at Harvard University and boyhood friend of Ellis, will present the Ellis MacLeod Lecture, "The Diversity of Life," on October 18, 1999. (Modified from Amer. Entomol.) [back to top]

Remembering Ellis MacLeod
by Jim Nardi

New discoveries abound in all areas of biology these days, and keeping up with these myriad developments in biology is a real challenge. In a department like ours in which students and staff investigate all aspects of entomology—basic and applied, molecular and organismic, descriptive and experimental—we are privileged to participate in conversations, seminars, and courses covering a variety of approaches, a variety of organisms, and all levels of biological organization. No one person can master the vast literature of entomology these days, but Ellis MacLeod came close to doing so.

Ellis had a real passion for knowledge; and even though I knew him for 22 years, I never discovered boundaries to his inquisitiveness nor did I ever know Ellis in an uninquisitive mood. He had originally in-tended to study physics as an undergraduate, but he eventually succumbed to the allure of insects. In addition to his passion for his beloved Neuroptera, an order that certainly does have its share of unusual features and strange ways, Ellis knew the idiosyncrasies of all the insects. In preparing his lectures, reviews of the literature were usually not good enough. He wanted to see what the original literature had to say about the topic. So much of the original entomological literature is written in French and German, but that did not deter Ellis. Never satisfied with superficial explanations, he had to delve and pry into the intricacies of phenomena. To present all sides of an issue, he would discuss the variety of hypotheses that had been proposed with their strong points as well as their weak points.

One day a classic of insect embryology by William Morton Wheeler appeared on my desk with an inscription from Ellis. Most of us know Wheeler’s impressive body of work on the ants, but not many of us realize that Wheeler began his entomological career as an insect embryologist. I had mentioned Wheeler’s 1893 embryological work in a departmental seminar a few weeks earlier, and this had apparently reminded Ellis of a copy of this classic he had picked up many years earlier when it was being discarded by the Harvard library to make way for more recent articles. First Ellis had this publication from 1893 specially bound, and then inside he wrote "from W.M. Wheeler to G.H. Parker, then to the BioLab’s library and a rescue by me, and finally to Jim Nardi where it has belonged all along." I was delighted by this gift as well as by the thought that Wheeler would probably have been pleased to know that he had observed an embryological phenomenon that the Drosophila embryologists with their sophisticated immunolabeling techniques and microscopes had somehow overlooked.

On my first day in Urbana in 1976, Ellis and I happened to meet at a dinner for the departmental seminar speaker. I can still remember that we somehow ended up discussing a book which we had both enjoyed very much, Rachel Carson’s The Sea around Us. From then on, one interesting conversation followed another every time I was in Ellis’ company. Ellis was a superb teacher, but he always steadfastly denied that he was. It was his childlike enthusiasm for so many topics and the depth of his knowledge that made learning from Ellis so fulfilling and satisfying. My education always continued when I was around him. Who else would have introduced me to the books of Alan Moorhead, Australian folk songs, or the peculiar sex lives of potter wasps? Over the years I was privileged to share many conversations with Ellis; we not only shared a laboratory as well as an apartment for a while, but every year we also spent many days together in the field. Ellis might have started out as a colleague, but he soon became a confidant, a big brother, a second father, a very good friend.

Over the last 30 years, Ellis’ influence and high standards of excellence helped shape our exceptional entomological community. Those of us who interacted with Ellis during those years know that our experience here would have been far less rich, less interesting, and less rewarding if Ellis had not been around to enhance our appreciation of Professor Wheeler’s view of nature as "an inexhaustible source of spiritual and aesthetic delight." [back to top]


Integrative Biology University of Illinois

Updated 12/08/99