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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