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Eugene Odum

1913 – 2002

Eugene Odum pioneered the concept of the ecosystem. Perhaps even more important, he made the relationship between human activity and “natural processes” as essential part of his description of the concept ecosystem. Before the publication of his book “Fundamentals of Ecology” in 1953, ecology as a scientific discipline consisted of small-scale studies of individual ponds, marshes, and other systems that seemed to be understandable in isolation. He wrote the book that’s still THE BOOK for the scientific study of ecology. He showed that scientists could look at a the big picture, weather patterns, watersheds, regional plant and animal populations, and relate those in the same way earlier studies had examined individual pieces of the puzzle. His book was the catalyst that changed ecology from the study of the microcosm to the macrocosm, the study of how everything fits together, and how human beings are part of the problem and must be part of the solution.

Eugene Odum was born in 1913, the son of the distinguished sociologist Howard W. Odum. In fact, Eugene credits his father with teaching him holistic thinking, which is the heart of ecology as Eugene later helped to develop the science. Even as a college student, he was thinking wholistically when considering where to study zoology. He thought of going to Cornell, but the practice in the Zoology Department at that time was simply to assign graduate students a species (his interest at that time was birds) and you wrote you thesis on that species. He thought about the University of Michigan, but there the emphasis was on the university’s museum collection. He wanted to study living birds and how their lives related to the life of the environment in which they lived, how energy moved through that ecosystem (though the word hadn’t been coined yet). He went to the University of Illinois, one of the very few schools of that time where that sort of holistic thinking was accepted in the Graduate Department of Zoology.

After he was awarded his doctorate, he went to the University of Georgia. He taught there until his death in 2002. Along the way, he demonstrated just what the word ecology meant, first to sceptical colleagues, then to the rest of the academic biological community, and later to the country and the world at large.

In the late 1940s, Odum was on a faculty committee that was drawing up the curriculum, listing required courses for biology majors. He suggested that Ecology be a required course. He was laughed out of the room. Later, other biology professors asked him, “What is ecology?” He realized them that what he was teaching lacked a fundamental textbook laying out the basic principles of the science. He set about writing one with his brother Howard, then a graduate student at Yale. their 1953 book “Fundamentals of Ecology” became the first textbook in the field. In fact, for about ten years, it was the only textbook in the field!

In 1962, the publication of Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring” brought new energy to the growning environmental movement in America. As concerned people started looking for ways to explain environmental thinking, they latched onto the term ecosystem, coined by Raymond Lindeman in 1942 and used by Odum in his widely-read text. More than that, by the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, his concept of the earth as a vast set of interlocking ecosystems became the dominant theme of the environmental movement and has remained so to this day.

Odum started his professional life by sponsoring ideas that were out of step with his professional peers. He continued to support minority views within the field of ecology throughout his life. He supported Lovelock and Margulis’s Gaia hypothesis, that the earth is a self-regulating entity, though he reserved judement on whether or not it was self-organized. He de-emphasized evolution because he felt that evolutionary studies placed too much emphasis on the individual organizm and its genetic code. He even downplayed the importance of one of the most popular slogans of the environmental movement, “Small is Beautiful.” He changed it to say, “Small if Beautiful but Big is Powerful.”

Perhaps it was his continuing ability to think for himself and not be carried along by majority views that kept him at the forefront of ecological thinking for half a century. When he died earlier this year, he was still considered one of the most important current thinkers in his field, the field he pioneered in 1953. The Fourth Edition of “Fundamentals in Ecology” is required reading across the country. It’s still THE BOOK for the scientific study of ecology. The Fifth Edition is due out soon.

Web Links

  • University of Georgia Institute of Ecology
  • An excellent interview with Prof. Odum was published in Natural History Magazine. It’s archived on the web.
  • Eugene Odum: An Ecologist’s Life, a brief biography of Odum, a companion piece to a PBS biography, is on the University of Georgia website.
  • Jennifer Rand had posted an essay on the web that talks about Raymond Lindeman’s 1942 paper, “The trophic-dynamic aspect of ecology” in which Lindeman coined the term ecosystem.