James (Jim) Homer Tumlinson III died peacefully on February 9, 2022, in Gainesville, FL, surrounded by his loving wife and two daughters. A giant in the field of Chemical Ecology, his scientific discoveries transformed our understanding of plant and insect communication.
Jim was born on February 28, 1938, in the small farming community of West Point, Mississippi to Marie and James Homer Tumlinson Jr., the oldest of their four children. Jim’s earliest memories are of riding horseback through the pastures of his family’s 1,300-acre cattle and cotton farm, perched on the saddle in front of his father, holding the reins. Jim spent his boyhood on a brown and white spotted pony named Trigger, who he described as “wild and full of tricks.” From age eight, Jim rode Trigger all over the farm, herding cows and exploring. In the fall, Jim and his three siblings and their grandmother, Daisy Harmon, would walk a mile or more to the back of the farm to gather pecans from a wild pecan tree. His other grandmother, Roselle Tumlinson, described Jim, at age 11, as “a great help to his father” noting, “his first love is horses. His second, books.”
In September 1956 Eisenhower was president and the military was popular, and, with this backdrop, Jim arrived at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Jim made the most of these four years by earning a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and graduating first in his battalion in the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Class Program (earning the Commandant’s Trophy). He was selected as Regimental Commander (First Captain of the Corps of Cadets) for his senior year (1959-60). Following VMI, Jim graduated first in his Officer Candidate School, and was commissioned as a second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps.
But when Jim’s daughters asked him about his time at VMI, the story they were most likely to hear was about the day, in the fall of 1959, when he went on a blind date with a girl from Mary Washington College. That is how he met Miss Sue Skelton. They married 3 years later and spent 60 wonderful years together. In the months leading up to their wedding, Jim’s Marine Corps platoon was deployed to the Mediterranean and – just as they were returning to the US after six long months – was diverted and assigned to the mission of invading Cuba. After floating in the Caribbean for 6 weeks, the Cuban Missile crisis was thankfully defused, and Jim arrived home just in time for his wedding to Sue 10 days later. He always described his marriage to Sue as “the best thing I ever did.”
Jim always embodied the discipline and leadership instilled during his military training. But by 1964, he realized he did not want a military career and decided to look for a new profession. Rachel Carson had just published ‘Silent Spring,’ bringing sudden attention to the environmental harm caused by frequent use of chemical pesticides – the same pesticides used on the farm where Jim grew up. Jim would go on to earn a Master of Science and a Doctorate in organic chemistry from Mississippi State University, where a new research lab on boll weevils had just been established. At this time, the boll weevil was a devastating cotton pest and required massive pesticide applications for control. Of his many scientific contributions, Jim’s early work was a key component in the program that eradicated the boll weevil from the United States. This work remains a legendary success to this day.
Over his lifetime, and alongside countless gifted and treasured collaborators, Jim’s laboratory identified many novel and impactful insect management strategies, coming up with integrated pest management solutions that curtailed further destruction of our planet. Notably, in 1997, along with his colleagues, he published groundbreaking research, on the chemical communication between corn plants and wasps against a common enemy, the caterpillar.
Leveraging his knowledge and expertise of how insects use pheromones to communicate with each other and find mates, Jim led pioneering research on how plants cry for help and recruit natural enemy “bodyguards” when they are attacked by pests. He subsequently demonstrated that plants are also using dynamic volatile chemicals to “listen” to other plants and prepare for attack. The largely invisible interactions discovered are now paradigms appreciated to be present in nearly all biological systems. Many of his colleagues feel strongly that Jim had a leading role in the reinvigoration and rejuvenation of the entire field of research known as Chemical Ecology. For the last twenty years Jim served as the Ralph O. Mumma Professor of Entomology at Pennsylvania State University; but much of his research was conducted within the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in Gainesville, FL, in a building that was constructed as a direct response to ‘Silent Spring’. Informed by nature, his discoveries demonstrated a clear path forward using insect and plant biochemical signals to creatively solve challenging pest problems with close to no environmental footprint. He was not nearly finished with his research and would have gladly continued onward had his health allowed. His insights and ideas continue to inspire Chemical Ecology researchers to pursue his shared vision and further extend his pioneering discoveries.
Among his accolades: election to the National Academy of Sciences; induction into the USDA-ARS Science Hall of Fame; the Burdock and Jackson International Award for Research in Pesticide Chemistry; the J.E. Bussart Memorial Award for research accomplishments in the area of insect semiochemicals and associated behavior; the Kenneth A Spencer Award for Outstanding Achievement in Agricultural and Food Chemistry; the Jean-Marie Delwart Foundation International Prize for chemical communication; the Wolf Prize in Agriculture.
More than all these awards combined, Jim felt he was very fortunate to have been able to do work that he really enjoyed for his entire career, alongside other bright and curious minds. His pioneering work inspired legions of graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and scholars. He approached his work with humility and curiosity, always with an eye towards digging deeper and finding answers, tireless in his scientific pursuit.
Jim was a gentleman, scholar, and natural born leader. He was honest and direct, and you always knew where you stood with him. He believed not in genius but in hard work and perseverance. You would be hard pressed to find a man who was more adored by his wife. He was fearless on a horse; completing a 100-mile endurance ride in his early 70s on his beloved “Brass.” He was adored by his two daughters and grandchildren, who called him “Papa” and enjoyed his expertly built bonfires every October. He encouraged them to make the most of their talents, and to “get their mind right,” and persist in the face of any obstacle. He taught them sailing, horseback riding, and nurtured curiosity in them. Although his humanity will not be forgotten, he may have loved his dogs and horses most of all. He will be missed terribly.
Jim is survived by his college sweetheart and wife of 60 years, Mary Sue Tumlinson of Melrose, FL; his daughters: Anne Tumlinson and her husband, Erik Johnson, of Washington, D.C. and Katherine Tumlinson and her husband, Mehul Patel, of Carrboro, NC; his grandchildren Grace Stohr and James Stohr; his foster grandsons Paul and Lucca; his three siblings Beverly Sparrow of Lexington, KY, Bud Tumlinson of West Point, MS, and David Tumlinson of Montrose, CO; and many nieces and nephews. Funeral services will be held at 3 PM Friday February 18,2022 at Robinson Funeral Home in West Point, Mississippi, with visitation from 2:00 – 3:00 pm. A private burial will follow in Greenwood cemetery. Pallbearers to include Bud Tumlinson, James Stohr, Crews Johnston, Erik Johnson, Mehul Patel, Peter Cassidy, and Mark Mahan.
A celebration of life service will be held at 2pm on March 12th at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville, Florida. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Clearwater Conservancy in State College, Pennsylvania, or to the environmental charity of their choice.