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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile # 12: Eugene Odum, the Godfather of Ecology

Air Date: Week of

Forty years ago Eugene Odum wrote a book that revolutionized the academic approach to the science of ecology. Odum advocated the integration of plant and animal studies into holistic, ecosystem studies. At age 81, Odum is writing about his ideas for general readers. Mary Kay Mitchell of WUGA in Athens, Georgia has this profile.


CURWOOD: The science of ecology has been around for a long time, but the holistic ecosystem approach taught today only recently began to make its way into the academy. If there is one man who was key to making that change, it may be Eugene Odum. Odum popularized the notion of ecology in a book 40 years ago, and later applied the concept in founding the Institute of Ecology of the University of Georgia. That's where Mary Kay Mitchell of member station WUGA found him, and prepared this installment in our series of profiles of 25 environmental pioneers.

MITCHELL: Students, faculty, and visiting scientists mingle in the vine-covered courtyard of the Institute of Ecology for their monthly informal discussion. These people come from all over the world to work and study at the Institute, built the same year as the first Earth Day in 1970. The Institute is the inspiration of its Director Emeritus, Eugene Odum. At the age of 81, he is still active. Today, he's making arrangements over the telephone for a conference on politics and the environment.

ODUM: And so we've actually been in correspondence trying to get representatives, people from both Coverdell and Newt Gingrich here because Gingrich actually was here some years ago and talked with us about the environment.

MITCHELL: Odum is working hard these days to convince politicians of the importance of connecting environmental concerns with all other public policy issues. He first began to notice such interrelationships as a young scientist studying birds, when he had a breakthrough revelation.

ODUM: So you realize that you can't understand the physiology of any one organism, or any one group of organisms like birds, without going on to the physiology of the system they live in. So you go from functions, like blood circulating and heart pumping, to the salt marsh with the tides being the parts, and the flow of the water being the circulatory system.

MITCHELL: Odum's colleagues initially ridiculed this holistic approach. They were used to teaching animal ecology and plant ecology separately. In response, Odum wrote a pivotal book in 1953 called Fundamentals of Ecology. According to ecological historian Robert McIntosh of Notre Dame, it started a revolution in the way ecology was taught.

McINTOSH: He certainly was pushing the re-conception of ecology to make it essentially much more inclusive than it traditionally was. He at one point made the point that ecology was emerging as what he called a new integrative discipline. It transcended biology. He wanted to include all human considerations, human society.

MITCHELL: The book quickly became the seminal ecology textbook, translated into several languages.

McINTOSH: His book dominated the market.

MITCHELL: Frank Golley, Professor of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

GOLLEY: I would say without exaggeration, I think, that in America at least, most of the ecologists of the next generation were trained using his book.

MITCHELL: Odum's work showed the next generation of ecologists how human activities were affecting life support systems and how their discipline could help preserve and ensure a high quality of life for humans and other species.

JACKSON: Odum has long been a strong inspiration for the type of research that we've been doing here at the Land.

MITCHELL: That's the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, run by Wes Jackson. The Institute is an international leader in developing sustainable agricultural practices, which serve as a model for living in harmony with natural ecosystems.

JACKSON: The rules, or the principles, or the guidelines that are derived from understanding natural ecosystems and how they work -- to a large extent, the bedrock for that has been laid by Odum and his students.

MITCHELL: Odum created that legacy by putting the philosophy of his book into action. In order to prove the importance of ecology as an integrative discipline, he established the Institute of Ecology to cut across the usual academic boundaries. Today, the Institute hosts the largest number of practicing ecologists in the country, and Odum's contributions have been recognized internationally with numerous top science awards.

So what's next for the innovator? In addition to a full schedule of lectures and conferences, he's writing a new book to share his message with the general public.

ODUM: The environment is part of everything. The reason we have so much violence is because the environment is getting bad, you see. Solving our human problems now depends more and more on understanding and dealing with the environmental predicaments. In the political arena and the economic arena, you see, these people are environmentally illiterate.

MITCHELL: So Dr. Eugene Odum's goal now is to teach the world. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Kay Mitchell in Athens, Georgia.



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