A day to think, to pause, to ponder

Today is not an easy day for me.

I pause today to think about a person in my life.  A person who was dedicated to science and discovery and improving the human condition.  A person who was idealistic and sensitive and also had some mental health issues.  A person who was pushed over the edge by an overly aggressive, misguided investigation.  A person who became lost in some sort of downward spiral triggered by this investigation.  A person who then took their own life and in one moment created a catastrophic ripple in the world around them.

This person was not Aaron Swartz, though I am thinking of him today too. The person I refer to was my father.  On this day, February 7, 1987, my father Howard J. Eisen took his own life.  I was a freshman in college then.  Enjoying life on my own at Harvard.  Exploring the world of new friends, academic pursuits, and the usual college antics.  And then it all exploded.  The details are a bit of a blur and most are not really important for what I write about here.  But suffice it to say I was devastated.

I flew home to Maryland with my brother and slowly the details emerged.  My father was a researcher at the NIH.  A paper was being prepared for publication by a post doc who worked for a colleague / boss of my father and who my father also worked with.  My father was apparently asked to look at the paper and some “discrepancies” were noted and my father helped launch an investigation into the work.  The NIH panel that was brought in to investigate the work of this post doc was very aggressive – very unpleasant – and even though no accusations of wrong doing were made against my father – the style and tone of the investigation pushed him over the edge.  And he could not dig himself out.  Some people knew he was having trouble with the whole incident but others (e.g., myself) were not in the loop at all.  I knew nothing.  Perhaps people thought I had enough going on as a freshman in college or perhaps it just never came up.  But all I knew was discovered after finding out my father had died, by taking his own life, on February 7, 1987.

Losing my father at the age of 18 was devastating.  Still is.  The fact that he killed himself made it even worse of course.  There were even news stories for a while about it – in the Washington Post, and New York Times, and the Associated Press and Nature and such.  Some of the stories helped in a way because they did not accuse my father of any wrong doing.  For example the Washington Post reported

“Dr. Howard J. Eisen, a respected scientist at the National Institutes of Health, committed suicide at his Bethesda home last week while under pressure from an investigation he helped initiate of alleged scientific fraud by a coworker. 

The suicide has shocked the NIH community and outraged some scientists there, who think that the stress of the investigation triggered Eisen’s death. They view it as a case of the system making a responsible scientist suffer even though he acted aggressively to uncover possible dishonesty in his laboratory. Eisen’s friends and family acknowledged that his personality-he was intensely idealistic and unusually sensitive-made him vulnerable.”

And the Nature article, by Joe Palca, reported “NIH made no allegations against Eisen.” Did these make me feel better?  I suppose.  But of course, not really.  Suicide is brutal for those left behind (and I am sure for those who commit it).  I have never recovered.  But I note – the life and death of my father, and the story of the investigation, have shaped my life.  It is why, when I went to graduate school, my #1 criterion for choosing a PhD advisor was that they were a good, kind person.  After struggling with some of the people I worked with I found such a person in Phil Hanawalt and, really, never wanted to leave his lab.  I see so many examples of scientists and MDs and administrators abusing their positions of power and finding someone who does not do any such things can sometimes be a challenge.

The story behind my father’s death is also why, a few years ago, when I realized my father’s publications were not freely and openly available that I got so angry.  My father had, in a way, died over his research.  And for it to not be available pained me to no end.  When David Dobbs wrote a story about my quest to Free my Father’s publications I felt some peace that I had done something in his name.  And when I finally made them all available a week later, I was truly happy.

The story behind my father’s death is also why, when people have pointed out to me that I have been a bit over the top in critiquing others, that I back off.  And I have tried to get others on the web and in my arena to be much more careful about avoiding personal attacks (e.g, see here).

I also note that the story behind my father’s death is why the death of Aaron Swartz hit home so hard to me.  I knew Aaron a tiny bit (having met a SciFoo many years ago) but not in any deep way.  I read the stories about his JStor download and even wrote about it a little bit.  But I was not aware of the demented, aggressive prosecution of him and when I read about his death I was devastated.  The story reminded me a great deal of my father.  I wrote about Swartz and about the follow up PDFTribute movement (here and here) but it felt a bit awkward since I did not know quite how to discuss my own personal feelings about this story.  So I said nothing.  But now, in tribute to my father, I am trying to not ignore the facts around his death.  They are a part of his life and a part of why I am the way I am.  So I write this post.  And I call for others out there to remember – life is fragile.  Be careful with your words and your actions.  No – one cannot blame everyone – or anyone really – for complex things like suicide.  But we can all do a little bit to improve how we treat others.  And on this day, when I am 44, the same age as my father was when he died, that is what I think about.

My father, Howard J. Eisen

UPDATE 2/8: See my brother’s nearly simultaneously written post about this topic (which we did not discuss – typical – here).

Storification of responses

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

31 thoughts on “A day to think, to pause, to ponder”

  1. Thanks for sharing – life is fragile and you obviously make an effort to live yours to the fullest. I typically wouldn't comment, but this post is difficult for me to read. My dad died on this day in 1996. I was 22, devastated and couldn't believe he was leaving (again, and permanently) at age 47. It was and is terribly sad – wasted human potential is just the worst. Best wishes on getting through the day. – Denneal


  2. Thank you so much for your words. A month ago I took this job as Assistant Dean at MSU's Graduate School motivated by many things – one of which is how graduate education can be rigorous and challenging while at the same time being humane.

    Although we grew up together, I never met your dad. I am sorry I did not. Your commitment to ethical and open scientific practice is inspiring. Keep up the terrific work. Your dad would be so proud.


  3. I am very moved reading this post Jonathan. When I met you at TIGR many years ago, I used to wonder about your simplicity, humbleness and the kind way you would interact with your team members and people like me from other teams working on your project. I have told many that I have never seen a successful scientist this humble. In an indirect way, your father has made a huge impact to several people through you. Your scientific contributions aside, you have really made him proud as a wonderful human being.


  4. my deepest condolences to you on this difficult day. It certainly puts your tireless efforts for openness and scientific (and personal) integrity in a new light. Thank you for sharing your experiences with the rest of us


  5. Thanks for sharing… argh, that phrase is so often abused. I really think it takes an effort to share something like this and it's so important, it deserves credit not platitudes… let me be more specific.

    My own father is also an academic research scientist. I can remember the time (also late 80's) when he had a bright, aggressive PhD student who deliberately faked IR spectra. My father also initiated an investigation. It was an extremely troubled time for him, at home as well as at work. The student was eventually stripped of his PhD, my dad retracted the paper and his lab was set back by a year as everyone jumped on the project to try and replicate their results. Eventually they managed to produce genuine spectra, but several people's careers were set back. I also remember my father sadly sharing stories of academics who had taken their own lives for various reasons, and it set me to thinking about the pressures of this profession and the tragedy of such events. While I cannot imagine what it was like to lose your dad in such a horrific way at that age, I am immensely grateful for your openness in posting this story. In some ways, it removes the stigma a little bit (I always wince when people hoot and jeer at retracted papers or stories of scientific fraud, and I feel it's incredibly important to show how many other dimensions there are to stories like this, rather than just grabbing popcorn & treating it as a spectacle; there is nearly always a component of betrayal of a mentor or collaborator, not to mention the tragedy of damaged careers and fractured lives). I do hope that posting this story is beneficial for you too. And yes, the parallels with Aaron are strong.


  6. I meant what I wrote in an e-mail, Jon. Condolences and best wishes to your and your family. Parents cast a long and complex shadow, indeed.

    And thanks for the wise and true words about Phil Hanawalt.


  7. Thanks Melissa. Making sure “humane” is a word associated with graduate programs is a good task. And I am sure my dad must have seen you some time in some clarinet related performance right?


  8. Thanks Mathangi. The funny/strange/nice/sad thing is – it never even occurs to me to treat people otherwise. I was always a bit sad / stunned at TIGR to see how some PIs treated the people around them. Especially the people “below them” as they might say. I never once have believed in such hierarchies …

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Many people in science as a field try to make it seem so black and white. It is critical to remember that science is done by people. And when problems happen, it is important to remember there are real people there too ..


  10. Beautifully-written and very moving post. I read of your situation a couple of years ago through the David Dobbs article, and your ruminations here are profoundly valuable and also very meaningful. My condolences and best wishes to you.


  11. Thank you for sharing your background and thoughts with us. Yihi zichro baruch. Tragedy and strife often shape who we are and I appreciate your glimpse into the man behind the microbes. Your post led me to read more about Aaron Awarts and become more aware of the issues he stood for and your personal activism.


  12. So sorry that you have such painful experiences. I could not agree more about being kind to others, even in disagreement. Be well.


  13. I know I'm late in reading your post, but I just wanted to add my voice to those responding to your thoughtful and genuinely moving blog. You're one of my very favorite colleagues. Thanks.


  14. A not-so-happy birthday, but a brave blog post, and one I hope helps others avoid the sense of isolation and helplessness your father felt. He'd be proud of you.


  15. I just came across this post and I want to thank you for sharing something so personal and sensitive. I'm sorry you had to go through such a devastating experience in order to know how things are done in science. Sadly, we see many people in different places abusing their power, but really, how many more lives will it take? Like it was mentioned in the comment above “Science needs humanity.”

    Thanks for such a wonderful, moving piece


  16. Jon, I never knew this happened to your father and your family. Although it's nearly three decades late for me to say this, please know how very sorry I am that you and your family had to suffer this loss. I'm so glad you are choosing to share your story. My thoughts are with you today.


  17. Jon, I just submitted a comment but not sure it went through so I will try to re-create it, but delete one if it seems redundant. I never knew this happened to you and your family, and although nearly three decades have passed, I hope it's not too late to send you my deepest condolences. I am so glad you have chosen to share your story, however difficult it must have been to do so. Thinking of you and your family today.


  18. Jonathan, Thank you for having shared this poignant memory. (It is appropriate to make my comment more ore complete!) He was clearly not only an accomplished scientist, who raised accomplished scientists, but of equal importance a good father who raised sensitive and deeply contemplative sons (daughters?). Although the details of his experience may differ from my own experience spanning 35 years or so, the important facts are very similar. They differ only in that I was a more junior scientist who had to personally counter being tarred by those who used McCarthy tactics! I may have survived and would be glad to share it – but privately. Ferez


  19. Jonathan, your story touched me. I am sincerely sorry for your loss and for all of the pain that you and your family have endured. I was happy to learn that you found a kind mentor to pursue your graduate work and that you have found some closure with the release of your father's publications. I am currently a PhD student and I struggle with dealing with the posturing and competition. As of late, I especially think about leaving Academia, partially due to the way that people treat one another. I echo your recommendations of being considerate with respect to your actions and the words that you choose. I am sure I can work harder on that as well. Thank you. My thoughts are with you and your family today even though I have never met you.


  20. Jonathan, this personal story touched me, thank you for making the decision to post it. I am commenting to let you know that I am sincerely sorry to learn of your loss and for all of the pain that you and your family have endured. I was, however, happy to learn that you managed to find a kind mentor that supported you through your dissertation program and that you managed to find some solace through the publication of your father's research. Thank you also for the reminder to think more about how our actions and words affect others. I have never met you, but I wanted you to know that you and your family are in my thoughts today.


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