In Memoriam: Elizabeth Bernays


Elizabeth Bernays, Regents Professor Emerita of entomology, whose research career focused on the evolution of plant-feeding insects, died on March 5. Bernays is remembered by her colleagues for her numerous contributions to entomology.

Elizabeth Bernays, Regents Professor Emerita of entomology

Elizabeth Bernays, Regents Professor Emerita of entomology

"She was world-renowned for her research and played a key role in building our Department of Entomology," Bruce Tabashnik, professor and head of the Department of Entomology, wrote in a message to department faculty and staff. "She was a brilliant scientist and a wonderful supporter of our department and community."

Born and raised in Australia, Bernays developed an early fascination with insects and plants. She earned degrees from the University of Queensland and the University of London. She began her career as a British government scientist, working in Africa and India on the biology and control of agricultural pests. In 1983, Bernays joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where she began more theoretical research on the evolution of plant-feeding insects. She received the Vatican's highest honor for scientists, the Pius XI Medal, in 1986.

In 1989, Bernays and her husband, insect physiologist Reg Chapman, were recruited to the University of Arizona. Two years later, she became head of the University's Department of Entomology.

Her interdisciplinary approach to studying plant-insect interactions and her dedication to research and education left a lasting impact. She supervised 38 graduate students and postdocs, who continue her legacy worldwide. 

"Liz Bernays was nothing if not practical," said Goggy Davidowitz, a professor of entomology at the University who met her while he was a doctoral student. "The best advice I ever received during my dissertation was from Liz, who served on my Ph.D. committee. 'You need to think it through, but don't overthink it. Just do it, see what you get and take it from there.' This is the same advice I now give to my own graduate students."

Bernays had a particular interest in fostering a love of science in children. She worked with Tucson Unified School District over several years to provide hands-on experiments for fourth, fifth and sixth graders to learn about the feeding habits of the differential grasshopper. One experiment, "The Marvelous Munching Melanoplus," involved building "Hopper Hotels," or test chambers, where students observed the behavior of grasshoppers fed with different diets and then used computer analysis on the data they gathered. 

"It's no good being told about science only," Bernays said in a 1991 article about the project published by what was then known as the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "You have to do something you can ask questions about. You have to get results and keep an open mind in order to learn."

Bernays was an active supporter of the University's Arizona Insect Festival

After her retirement in 1996, Bernays pursued her passion for writing, earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University. She published more than 200 scientific papers, poems, essays and children's books. Her memoir, "Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life," won a 2020 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award in the autobiography/memoir category. Her latest book, "Across the Divide: The Strangest Love Affair," was released in 2023.

Bernays is survived by her wife, Linda Hitchcock. Memorial contributions in Bernays' honor can be made to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona or Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life health care nonprofit organization. No services are currently planned.

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