First Interview Session (February 15, 2008)
Narrator: Glenn R. Esenther
Interviewer: Allison Page
Date: 15 February 2008 (Friday)
Location: Forest Products Laboratory
Transcriptionist: Brad Wiles (2/27/08)
Auditor: Allison Page (4/7/08)
00:00:00 - 00:02:05 Introduction
introduction, background, education, biology, Marquette, Wisconsin; career, termites
Good morning. Today is February 15, Friday morning, 2008, and I am Allison Page with the University of Wisconsin Oral History Program, and today I will be interviewing Glenn Esenther about his years at the Forest Products Lab. Glenn, if you want to start off talking about your early education and what lead you to a career at Forest Products.
I got my bachelors degree at St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa. I got a master's in - that was in biology - I've got a master's at Marquette University. That was in zoology. And then my PhD is at Wisconsin in entomology department. What was the follow up on that?
What lead you to a career at Forest Products? How did you hear about it?
I got on to a project with cooperation between UW and the lab to begin termite work at the lab. I was the first and only entomologist at the lab. [A few years ago 'Rick' Green restarted termite work with Rachel Arano as an assistant. She is working on an MS in Entomology.] And that lead to being hired, actually just before I completed my doctorate.
What year was that?
00:02:05 - 00:05:11 Awareness
awareness, memories, first day, wood preservation, Protection, fungi, organisms, division chief; Lindgren, Ralph; Jeffers, Ted; Esslin, Wally; project leader
Do you have any early remembrances of your first day at the lab?
That would be very confusing. Very, very vague. It's only fifty years ago.
Would you like to maybe describe -
Well, when I came to the lab I joined, I think it was wood preservation at that time and then it changed to, they broke off the treatment of wood, and our group became the wood protection. That was, somewhere in there it was called wood protection and then they split into two projects, wood preservation and - I forget where it was that they started calling us - wood deterioration, bio-deterioration group. [short pause] They changed their name partly because now it was just a study of fungi at the lab and then the wood preservation with chemicals. When I came on that's when it became wood bio-deterioration because it covered two aspects of organisms that attack wood. When I first came here the project leader or division chief, it might have been division at that time, was Ralph Lindgren. I got the names here in case you want to get spelling. And when Ralph retired, Ted Scheffer took over and he was it for many years and then - I don't remember dates that these changes occurred - but then it was Wally Eslyn and he was the project leader until just before - I think we both retired about the same time. What was the next point you wanted to cover?
00:05:11 - 00:11:26 Typical Day
typical day, termites, decayed wood, pesticide, bait, Myrex, banned, Chesapeake Bay; Carson, Rachel; Janesville
Maybe if you could just describe a typical day of work or certain projects that you remember.
I'd come in for the first few years - I was getting to find out what a termite was, just from the literature and handling them myself for the first time. Early, since I was working with a bunch of mycologists, one of the things I tried was looking at how termites would respond to decayed wood. And very quickly it turned out that one of the fungi I was working with was very attractive to the termites. [At that time it was Lenzites Trabea 617 (culture).] Now we know it was an attraction. But at that time we thought of it as attraction and that right away opened up the possibility that you could put a pesticide in with the attractive material and get some control of termites. And for many years after that we were trying to find out just what it was doing, how it was doing, both in the lab and field. We found out that, for some reason, it was greatly suppressing the activity of termites with very little contact with the pesticidal bait material. That [Insecticidal baits] is now currently probably the major way of protecting buildings from termites. But of course, there were a lot of changes. The first insecticide we used was called Mirex. It was very good as a bait poison. It was originally worked out for fire ants. After that we lost Mirex, it was banned from use, and I never did find another insecticide to replace it that was anywhere near as good. And from what I know now, we still don't have one that was as good as the Mirex was.
Was there a reason why they banned Mirex?
Yeah, it was very closely related to another insecticide, [Kepone,] that created a lot of problems on the East Coast where it was being manufactured and put into use. A lot of it escaped into Chesapeake Bay and it was raising heck with the sea life in Chesapeake Bay. And so it was a big push. That was just after the period of the Rachel Carson book and big concern about long lasting insecticides. How much do you want me to go into - beyond what I've said - into this stuff on bait material?
You can say whatever you feel is relevant to your work here at Forest Products.
Well, after I lost the use of Mirex, I still didn't know what it was doing to the termites, the baits [i.e. the toxic bait]. And so I started studying, doing a lot of experiments to try and get an understanding of what the termites were doing in the ground.
Early in the period, probably the second year I was here, we, [myself and a UW entomologist,] discovered that termites were [infesting] a place in Janesville and it was a nice open area, so it lent itself to field work. Then I found out that the termites up here could develop massive colonies, [multi-millions]. Usually you thought of a termite as a colony with a nest and the workers went out from that nest to forage. But down there I found out that the termites---there were multiple nests and they were interconnected. And so it was massive population rather than the typical thing that we thought of as down south where they were considered smaller populations. That explained why up here the treatments that were available at that time would probably fail after five or six years rather than fifteen-twenty years. Because of up here apparently they were capable of making these massive populations that were interconnected. I'm going to have to reach a stopping point because I'm - do you have any questions that you can bring up?
00:11:26 - 00:14:58 Field Work
field work, Gulfport, Mississippi; Beal, Ray Beal; New Orleans, Louisiana, experiments
Did you do most of your work here at the lab or did you do mostly field work?
Well, in field work, Janesville was my principal field study area. I cooperated with the people down at Gulfport, Mississippi, a government [US Forest Service] project down there. Their termite work was predominantly concentrated on studying soil poisons for termite control. But I worked with, principally, Ray Beal. I did some experimental work with him down in Mississippi and a little bit over into New Orleans and Lake Charles, Louisiana. With him we did one study out at Midway Island and we had a couple more naval bases that we did some experimental work on.
Can you describe maybe some of the experimental work that you did?
Mostly it was very experimental because we really didn't know enough about termites at that time. So it was trying out different things to see if [we could] get an understanding of what was happening. And of course after we lost the Mirex, we changed from control to a study in biology. While we still had Mirex the first time, I did a study - our [national] capitol building has termites - and so we were invited there to see if we could do something about them. And I had very little control over follow ups. But apparently we did have some luck at least a few years later. They called me back in to try a re-treatment, but by then I didn't have any good insecticide to work with.
Do you remember maybe around what time period you did the work on the capitol?
I'd have to go and look at my old papers and things. It was probably pretty early. Probably in the late '60s.
00:14:58 - 00:17:31 Colleagues
colleagues, memories, entomologist; Esslin, Wally; Jeffers, Ted Jeffers; publications
Do you have any specific memories of some of the people that you worked with at Forest Products or in the field work?
I was the only entomologist with a bunch of fungal specialists, so of course I knew them. Wally Eslyn was one. I was very fortunate to get an assistant. My mind goes blank on names. I always have it bad on names. Somewhere along in there - I won't bring it up. I can't remember names well enough. When it comes to names I'm horrible. Wally Eslyn, and I was just trying to remember Ted Scheffer's name. It took me two weeks to remember his name. And, you know, I was with him for years. That just indicates how bad my memory has gotten. If you want to get more information on background, Rick Green, here, has a booklet with all my publications.
Did you do a lot of writing for the Forest Products Lab?
No. I'm not much of a writer, so I didn't have a lot of publications. I felt I was - all my career - I was still learning about termites. And even today we still don't know very much about termites, as much as we really need to know.
00:17:31 - 00:18:05 Capitol Building
So would you say that the capitol building, that was kind of a big project?
No, that wasn't that big a project as far as involvement - I went down there and put in the treatment in one day, then I came back home and I didn't get back there to inspect or anything. So it was sort of a little trial to see if we could help out.
00:18:05 - 00:19:36 Projects
projects, Midway Island, treatment; Beal, Ray; Navy
Are there any big projects that you can remember that you worked on, besides just field work and studies?
Well, the work out at Midway Island - what is there two square miles in size? My part of the project--- that was with Ray Beal - my part of the project was to provide the treated baits and then I was involved in helping put in the treatment. Ray set up and got the maps and everything and planned out the actual treatment. But, again, it was a problem of trying to find a way to monitor the termites and we tried using stakes, but we went back a year after the treatment, we couldn't find the stakes, depending on termites feeding on them, because the Navy is very neat, so they pulled out our stakes.
00:19:36 - 00:21:44 Forest Products Laboratory
Forest Products Laboratory, Forest Service, impression, opinion, fungal, disappointed, retired, feel, chemicals
Here's an interesting question. How do you feel about your work here at the Forest Products Lab and for the Forest Service in general?
Well, I was disappointed when I retired, they wanted to pull me off termite work and have me collaborate with - the name again - the guy who eventually became the project leader here, [Terry Highley]. To work with him on fungal work. And that was near the end of my career, and on that I still kept some termite studies going on, but I collaborate with him on writing up a study plan to study how we could evaluate fungi for useful chemicals and possible use as biological agents. And that was right at the end of my career here, so I didn't follow up on what happened to that.
Around what time was that?
That would be - let's see, I retired in  - that had to be somewhere around . And then I didn't do - when I retired - I didn't do anything with the lab until I found out there was a termite project still going on here.
00:21:44 - 00:25:55 Eradicate, Termites
eradicate, termites; Endeavor, Madison, Wisconsin; Green, Rick
It was an attempt to eradicate termites from a little town called Endeavor, north of Madison. I attended a retiree dinner here, and met Rick Green and talked to him about it and told him I'd volunteer to help out on it, because at that time no one here knew anything about termites. So I was able to do some background help on how to analyze what the termites were doing and what might be a good approach to their attempt to eradicate [baiting systems by pest control companies had greatly reduced the termite activity]. And that's where the study still is now, that study is still going on here, that's why I'm still helping out.
So do you go up to Endeavor?
Yeah, they had a schedule. That study was with a pest control company, [FPL, and in consultation with UW,] I guess it was. So they arranged to go up there every three weeks during warm weather to make inspections. They had originally put in a design to try to find out where the termites were over the whole area. And they had done that before I started cooperating with them. They didn't have a good idea of where it was necessary to put the stations out for trying to pick up termite activity. And so they tried to treat the whole area and it was mostly negative effects, except in a small area - the downtown area. I talked them in to changing the original plan and making it more consolidated to where we were finding termites. [inaudible] to get a better idea of this population and currently it looks like the population was in the downtown area and then about a good block away, near the downtown area, it looked like there were two separate things, because they were using a commercial baiting system and apparently that knocked out the termites in the downtown area. At least we haven't been able to find them around there since the treatments started. And the other area, the activity is still going on. And so we're going to try to hit that harder. And that's about where it stands there. I'm just giving you a very, very over, overview.
Well if you want to delve deeper into some of the project or studies that you did, by all means.
I couldn't do it in an organized way. I'd say take a look at my publications and from them if you develop questions I'd be available again.
00:25:55 - 00:30:21 Employment
employment, volunteer, retirement, impression, new approach, termite, control, insecticide; Green, Rick, Borates, onsite control, Washington
How do you feel about your work here, both when you were an active employee and as a retiree coming and volunteering?
Well, there was a twenty year gap between my retirement and before I came back to help out. So I was disappointed - the work on this new approach to termite control - I was taken off it - and I can't blame them for taking me off it because we didn't have an insecticide that would work. And frankly, I guess it was close to ten years after I retired, that they started coming up with a few other potentially useful insecticides. And they still haven't developed a really good substitute insecticide. I'd classify it as a marginal insecticide, they have three or four. [The three or four bait insecticides in use are only marginal for that use.] Of course I have nothing to do with that, the lab has nothing to do with those. Rick Green came up with a chemical that he thought had possibilities. They're looking at it and found out that that chemical that he was very interested in apparently was acting as a feeding stimulant to termites and over a twenty day period it would kill the termites. But I think you'd want to talk to him because its usefulness as an insecticide - I don't believe it has any use there [because it performs poorly in field work]. And we're still trying to find out just what it is doing to the termites and looks like it might be knocking out the protozoa that are in the termites. Termites eat the wood, but the protozoa convert it into a chemical that the termites can use as food. So that's sort of up in the air. The other insecticides - there's three or four insecticides that are in use now. People have tried Borates, I'm trying to think of the one - what is the chemical that you use as an eyewash? [Rick is relooking at Borates. He things twenty mule team Borax has potential.]
It's not coming to my mind.
Well, it's a boric acid, is basically what it is. That killed too fast, because in termite baiting system what you're looking for is an insecticide that'll be acceptable to the termites in a bait or however you make it available to the termites and then you're relying on the termites to spread around to other termites - they feed each other. So you're relying on termites to spread it out to the rest of the population. So it has to be slow acting to give it time to be spread. Slow acting - you're talking several days to longer, if possible.
00:30:21 - 00:33:27 Final Comments
final comments, change, progress, decision, politics
I'm at the end of my questions. Do you have any final stories, memories, or comments about the Forest Products Labs?
Well you wouldn't like the ones I have or there are people at FP who wouldn't like the ones, because when I first started here, there was a lot of onsite control over what was going on and gradually that became more and more - what we were doing was controlled and dictated from Washington.
How did you feel about that, or did you notice any change?
Well, it certainly interfered with the scientific progress of what was done at the lab, because suddenly it became a political decision rather than a scientific decision. But congressmen and representatives have to get re-elected, so that's always been the problem with government taking on scientific work. The politics of it become more important.
Do you think it really affected the way you work?
No. Because I was too stupid to try and fight against it. So I just tried doing what I thought I could do.
Anything else you would like to add?
Well, I came in here sort of figuring to highlight historical time. But until I could meet with you I had no idea of just what you wanted. I hope I've given you enough information to be able to come back with more complete questions. And then, probably if necessary, arrange another meeting and give me time in between to think about it, maybe get some notes together. [Except for Rick Green the US Forest Service is out of termite work, but the bait control potential is no where near true effectiveness, primarily due to a lack of a good toxin. Chemists see no economic benefit to their industry. Therefore, a non-chemist is the only hope to develop a good bait insecticide.]
[End of Interview]