Skip to main content
ARS Home » News & Events » News Articles » Research News » 2018 » ARS Hall of Fame Scientist Ernest James Harris Dies

ARS Hall of Fame Scientist Ernest James Harris Dies

By Dennis O'Brien, (301) 504-1624
February 26, 2018

Watch an interview with Dr. Harris

Ernest Harris

WASHINGTON, February 26, 2018--Ernest James Harris, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Hall of Fame scientist internationally known for finding innovative ways to control fruit flies that threaten crops around the world, died Tuesday at his home in Kaneohe, Hawaii. He was 89.

His technologies have been key to eradicating foreign fruit flies in California, Florida and other U.S. mainland states, and keeping areas free of these pests that would require costly quarantines and interfere with millions of dollars of agricultural exports.

He played an essential role in devising the raising and release of sterile Mediterranean fruit flies in time to control their first invasion into California in the 1970s. The technique has effectively controlled the pest there ever since.

The technologies he developed are also used in many other countries. His innovative techniques for mass rearing a beneficial wasp have allowed the wasp to be used as a biocontrol for fruit flies in Mexico, Africa, Israel, Brazil and several island nations in the South Pacific. He worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development to control Medflies in Tunisia and Morocco. He also earned a commendation from the Chilean government for his fruit fly eradication efforts that have benefited farmers in Chile and neighboring countries.

"Dr. Harris' contributions to agriculture continue to have a global impact and serve as a testament to his dedication, his perseverance and to a career focused on a commitment to excellence," said ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young.

Harris was named to the ARS Science Hall of Fame in September for his innovative scientific contributions to agriculture. The ARS Hall of Fame was established in 1986 to honor senior agency researchers for outstanding, lifelong achievements in agricultural science and technology.

His background also serves as a testament to his perseverance. He was the son of an African-American cotton farmer in Arkansas and as a youngster, he started school more than two months late each year because he and his five brothers and sisters needed to help their father pick cotton on a 5-acre family farm near Little Rock. He attended an all-black high school in the South, graduating in 1946 magna cum laude.

Harris was among the first African-Americans to volunteer to serve with the U. S. marines at Montford Point in North Carolina in 1946. He was a member of Montford Point Marines, which were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their courage for serving during the 1940s, when the military was segregated and African-Americans faced harsh discrimination while serving.

He was a particularly strong role model for other African-American scientists and was known to his ARS colleagues in Hawaii for his positive attitude, kindness, gentle demeanor and humility.

In 1999, Harris was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame and in 2012, he earned a lifetime achievement award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for his service to the State of Hawaii.

Harris, who authored hundreds of scientific papers, had been honored as an outstanding alumnus of the University of Hawaii and won an ARS certificate of merit for developing California fruit fly eradication technologies and techniques for mass rearing insects used for biological control.

Harris was the second ARS Hall of Fame member to die in recent months.

Microbiologist Cletus P. Kurtzman, who was one of the curators of the ARS Culture Collection, passed away in November.

He was world renowned for his pioneering development and use of molecular biology techniques to identify and describe microorganisms of agricultural, biotechnological, scientific and medical importance. His research fundamentally changed the field of yeast taxonomy.

His discovery of yeasts capable of fermenting simple plant sugars is credited with reviving industry efforts to convert crop biomass materials, like corn bran, into ethanol fuel.

Kurtzman was inducted into the ARS Hall of Fame in 2016.

The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.