In Memoriam: Professor Emeritus Harald E. Esch

Author: Provided

A memorial service for Dr. Esch will be held on Tuesday, November 21, 2017,
at 10:00 am at the Cedar Grove Cemetery Chapel, Notre Dame, Indiana.

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Dr. Harald E. Esch, Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences, passed away peacefully on October 7, 2017, at the age of 85 in Farragut, TN. Dr. Esch was born in 1931 in Dusseldorf, Germany. Originally trained as a physicist and mathematician at the University of Bonn and Free University, Harald shifted to biology for his doctoral studies. At the University of Würzburg, Harald studied with Dr. Karl von Frisch, the 1973 Nobel Prize Laureate in Physiology or Medicine best known for his pioneering work on the ‘waggle dance’ of the common honeybee, Apis mellifera. Under von Frisch’s tutelage, Harald earned a doctorate in 1960 in Zoology and Mathematics for his work on insect chemosensory physiology. Harald remained in Germany until 1964 as an Assistant Professor in the Radiation Research Laboratory at the University of Munich Medical School, where he worked on the effects of ionizing radiation on cell membranes. About that time, Harald’s physiological work caught the attention of Professor Rev. Cletus Bachofer, CSC, then the acting head of Biology at Notre Dame and himself a radiation biologist. On a trip to Europe, Fr. Bachofer urged Harald to consider coming to Notre Dame, to which Harald eventually agreed following a planned research deployment in Brazil in 1964 to study tropical bees. In an untimely and unfortunate event, however, Fr. Bachofer passed away in the interim (from contracting pneumonia after water skiing on Plum Lake at UNDERC during a CSC retreat). Undaunted, Harald was urged by Notre Dame to still join the then Department of Biology where he would inherit Fr. Bachofer’s laboratory and radiation equipment (after a tense negotiation with the Sisters of Holy Cross, who also wanted the equipment for their teaching needs).

In 1965, Harald officially joined the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, rising to the rank of Full Professor, where he would spend the remainder of his academic career. In his scholarship, Harald went on to become an international authority on honeybee communication in his own right. He conducted ground-breaking research and taught popular courses until he retired in 2005. A passionate and legendary teacher, Dr. Esch taught the extremely popular course Animal Behavior to legions of undergraduate students. His teaching prowess was recognized with the 1998 Father James L. Shilts/Doris and Gene Leonard Teaching Award, the highest teaching accolade in the College of Science. Over his career, Harald trained over 20 M.S. and Ph.D. students in his laboratory. Innumerable undergraduate students also engaged in research under his mentorship, many of which went on to graduate school themselves. Even after retirement, Dr. Esch continued to teach on a part-time basis for several years. Dr. Esch spent much of his career studying the behavior and sensory biology of honeybees (and other types of bees and wasps) and traveled internationally many times, especially to Germany and Brazil, to carry out his research and collaborate with colleagues. Harald had many publications about his work in numerous prestigious scientific journals and magazines.

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Harald was a rare combination of physicist, animal behaviorist, and neurobiologist. He developed his interest in physics, especially electronics, at a young age in Germany when he tinkered with anything electronic discarded from the ongoing war. He developed his love of biology while studying with Professor Karl von Frisch. During von Frisch’s 1973 Nobel speech, he specifically credited Harald for his assistance in deciphering how bees communicated using the waggle dance. Harald’s work on bee behavior continued throughout his career. In the summer, it was common to see Harald in the library quad training bees to sugar water to further decipher their communication. This typically attracted many onlookers, to whom Harald generously and patiently explained what he was doing and why. Even after his official retirement from ND in 2005, he spent considerable time working with bee researchers in Australia and Germany. Harald was also an excellent neurobiologist. He was one of the first individuals to make intracellular recordings of action potentials from extremely small nerve cells. He remarkably obtained data from cricket brain cells that colleagues in the field had told him were impossible to measure because of their small size. He greatly enjoyed working with and inspiring students in his laboratory. For example, he and Ph.D. student Steven Kogge conducted seminal work on the physiology of asynchronous flight muscles in hornets, showing how neural inputs enabled these muscles to power the wings at frequencies of a stunning and unappreciated 200-300 beats per second. With Ph.D. student Franz Goller, Harald illustrated how temperature-induced malfunction of synapses between motor neurons and flight muscles of several insect species accounted for the inability of the insects to fly at certain temperature extremes. In addition, Harald was also the first person in Biology to routinely use computers (initially the mainframe, the only computer at that time at ND) that enabled him to capture and analyze the huge data sets resulting from his neural work.

Finally, Harald had a keen sense of humor and was a renowned story teller, often related with a wry smile on his face. As an example, in his early years at ND, Harald and his family typically returned to Brazil in the summers to continue his studies on Brazilian bees, including “killer bees” from Africa that had been introduced there (although Harald did not feel that those bees were overly aggressive). Shortly after arriving in Brazil one summer, he and his wife Ilse hosted a large dinner party for his colleagues and friends from the university. They had noticed a few cockroaches in the house they were renting, so Ilse encouraged Harald to spray insecticide before the guests arrived. This resulted initially in a few roaches falling from the drop ceiling just prior to the guests’ arrival. As the party commenced, the ‘cockroach rain’ developed into a downpour, with roaches falling into the food and drinks, and an occasional head. Later Harald looked under the drop ceiling and discovered thick piles of thousands of dead roaches. Harald told this story to Notre Dame friends when they were out to dinner one evening. He related the story with his usual grin and gleam in his eye, while all the while Ilse did not crack a smile.

Professor Esch is survived by his daughter, Iris I. Esch-Williams (Mark), and was preceded in death by his wife, Ilse T. Esch, and his son, Jan E. Esch. Rest in peace, Harald.


Information compiled by Gary Lamberti and Jack Duman.