FAMOUS ECOLOGIST LEAVES IMPRESSIVE LEGACY

by Whit Gibbons

August 19, 2002


Last week the world lost its greatest ecologist. Dr. Eugene P. Odum, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, died the way he would have wanted, while tending his garden. The middle initial in his name stood for Pleasants, which was fitting. Gene was indeed pleasant--a charming southern gentleman. People felt comfortable calling him Gene, because he exhibited none of the trappings of an ivory-tower academician. Gene Odum was to the end the perfect scientist for teaching young people, as well as old, about ways of looking at ecology and the environment.

Born September 17, 1913, he grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., where his father, Howard W. Odum, was a famous sociology professor. Although Gene became known nationally and internationally as the "father of modern ecology" and for the development of ecosystem ecology, he began his biological career as an ornithologist. I was impressed two years ago when he delivered a captivating seminar on ecosystem theory--not only by his thought-provoking presentation but later when we stood on a porch beside a wooded area. Someone asked what bird was calling. "A red-bellied woodpecker," he said, "and the other one is a Carolina wren, the bird around here that sings in every month."

Now I realize that lots of people could name the woodpecker and wren by their calls, and maybe someone else could talk as engagingly about ecosystem ecology. But I do not believe anyone one else could have given the talk he gave and then identified bird calls. Gene Odum was impressive not only as the consummate scientist but also as a naturalist.

In the field of ecology, Gene's work had no parallel in the 1940s and 1950s. He looked at the environment as a whole instead of as separate, unrelated biological parts. His idea of the ecosystem, which involved not only all biological features but also the physical and chemical components of soils and waters, was championed in the face of a scientific community that thought differently. He once told me not to be discouraged about the criticisms of campus faculty about my research but to persist in what I thought was the right approach. He said that he once was very unpopular among other faculty of the University of Georgia because of his idea that ecologists should look at the environment as a system of interacting parts and not just the individual parts themselves. The criticisms of him were particularly strident in the 1950s following the publication of his first textbook, "Fundamentals of Ecology." But as one writer put it, "for an astonishing 10 years, he had the only textbook available worldwide on ecosystem ecology, a book that examined the entire ecosystem, starting from the top down. Odum argued that ecology was not a subdivision of biology or anything else. Instead, he said it should be an integrated discipline that brings all of the sciences together instead of breaking them apart."

Odum became the first director of the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology, which was founded in 1960 and attracted one of the largest contingents of well-known, productive, and respected ecologists in the world. His many contributions to science and the environment are admirably presented by Betty Jean Craige in "Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist," published in 2001 by the University of Georgia Press.

When Gene Odum retired in 1984, those who knew him best assumed he would keep coming to work every day, and he did. He published his last book in 1998, and he returned every year, including this one, for a summer visit to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory to meet the new ecology students. He left me an impressive legacy: I never saw him too busy to spend time with, show interest in, and give encouragement to a student, no matter how naive the project or the question.

Gene is inextricably linked with the statement "the ecosystem is greater than the sum of its parts." Perhaps Gene, too, was greater than the sum of his parts. Certainly, he will be greatly missed by all who knew him and were influenced by his clear thinking and his views on how the world and its environments really work.



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