Eske Willerslev was born in 1971 to a historian’s family living near Copenhagen, Denmark. He defended his doctoral thesis at Copenhagen University in 2004 and earned the Doctor of Science degree. Eske Willerslev is a true natural scientist in the classic sense of the word. In addition to academic and research work in Denmark, his love for the natural world has led him to expeditions to arctic Siberia and Greenland, in 1993–1994 he lived in Yakutia as a professional fur trapper. But he has also taken academic journeys, for example as a Wellcome Trust Fellow to the University of Oxford. Eske Willerslev is extremely committed to cooperating with the populations he studies, which is proved by the fact that the Apsaalooke tribe of Montana, USA, have made him an honorary member.
He became a full professor at Copenhagen University at the age of 33. He has now had at least half a dozen jobs, the most important of which include director of the Centre for GeoGenetics at Copenhagen University, professor at Copenhagen University, and Prince Philip Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Cambridge. Prof. E. Willerslev has been elected a member of several prominent academic organisations, he is a member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, foreign associate member of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), and honorary doctor at University of Oslo.
The list of research papers by Eske Willerslev includes 260 publications, which have been cited more than 22,000 times. His scientific achievements that have drawn the biggest response are in ancient DNA, an area that has explosively developed in recent decades, supplementing the research of the evolution of modern biodiversity with knowledge of organisms and species who lived on the Earth earlier. For example, the research team led by Willerslev sequenced the first ancient human genome in the world, using thousands of years old genetic material recovered from Paleo-Eskimo remains from Greenland. In addition, Eske Willerslev has been involved in laying the basis for environmental DNA research, which analyses the DNA of all organisms that can be isolated from ice cores or sediments. The honour of sequencing the genome of a 700,000-year-old mammal, a horse, so far is the oldest genome ever sequenced, also belongs to Prof. Willerslev.
In addition to remarkable scientific achievements, Professor Willerslev and his colleagues have made a great contribution to the popularisation of science in Denmark and in the whole world.
International paleogenomics projects have served as the foundation for Eske Willerslev’s fruitful collaboration with the evolutionary biologists of the University of Tartu and Estonian Biocentre and ecologists of the University of Tartu. Those studies have shed light to the complicated settlement history of Eurasia and America, and the relationships of arctic vegetation and dynamics of the populations of great mammals.
In recognition of Professor Willerslev’s academic achievements, his contribution to the development of international research cooperation in Estonia, and to introducing ancient DNA research as a new field of study at the University of Tartu, the university is pleased to confer upon Professor Eske Willerslev the degree of Honorary Doctor of Natural Sciences of the University of Tartu.