IS AMERICA'S BEST-KNOWN ECOLOGIST?
would declare that the best-known ecologist is E.O. Wilson, who celebrated
his 85th birthday on June 10, 2014. He has taken many giant steps in
a celebrated career that led to fame in the scientific world.
the term and concept of biodiversity. And as a student he discovered
the origin and identified the threat of the burgeoning scourge of fire
ants, the insidious insect invader from South America. His academic
journey took him from Alabama to Harvard.
knowing it, I first crossed the wake of Edward Osborne Wilson in 1955
when, as a high school student in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I met Professor
Ralph Chermock. Ed Wilson (as he was called then) was already well on
his way to becoming Dr. Chermock's most famous student at the University
of Alabama, where he completed his bachelor's in 1949 and his master's
a year later.
classic original research and thesis on fire ants became a yardstick
for what could be achieved at the predoctoral level. Later graduate
students like myself who worked under the supervision of Dr. Chermock
still take pride in noting that they had the same major professor as
years after receiving his master's degree, E.O. Wilson is unquestionably
the most famous biologist and arguably the most famous internationally
known person to have ever graduated from the University of Alabama.
you go from being a nature-loving kid in Alabama to the most respected
ecologist in America?
the career milestones of such a luminary is both easy and difficult
– easy because there are so many notable achievements to choose
from; difficult because deciding which ones to select is a humbling
you appropriately classify the world's top expert on ants who has also
indisputably achieved the top tiers of excellence as an evolutionary
biologist, sociobiologist, biogeographer, and philosopher of scientific
are benchmarks that let us put a scientist in context with other scientists.
E.O. Wilson's distinction becomes clear in the light of the many tributes
to him for specific achievements, a body of work, or ideas and forward
Wilson's more than 250 medals, prizes, and other accolades are numerous.
He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was awarded the
U.S. National Medal of Science by President Carter for contributions
to the advancement of knowledge in biology.
received not one but two Pulitzer Prizes (On Human Nature, 1971; The
Ants, with Bert Hölldobler, 1990). In 1990 the Royal Swedish Academy
of Sciences awarded him the Crafoord Prize, which is the world's most
prestigious honor in the biological sciences with an emphasis on ecology.
presented to this extraordinary man have their own significance. When
he was 13 in Mobile, Ala., he joined the Boy Scouts of America.
intrigued with the instructional opportunities for learning about nature
through merit badges and other activities.
at the age of 75, E.O. Wilson received the Distinguished Eagle Scout
Award. To even be considered a candidate one must have been recognized
for service both to one's community and to one's profession for at least
a quarter of a century after becoming an Eagle Scout.
governors have received the award. Few scientists other than E.O. Wilson
are ever likely to do so.
strongest ties are those to his home state and to his alma mater, where
he started his professional career as a field biologist fascinated with
the biodiversity around him.
celebration of Earth Day in April 2014 was the Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity
Symposium held in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama.
contributions to science and society cannot be overstated, and a full
discussion of his writings and awards would be lengthy indeed. His honors
are many, and his legacy is lasting. Ecology has had few champions that
have made such a remarkable journey.
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