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April 17, 2017   Inside UGA

Father of modern ecology: Eugene Odum taught new ways to understand and protect planet Earth

James Hataway

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By James Hataway | April 17, 2017

Eugene Odum was not given to fits of anger, but this time he was furious.

It was the fall of 1946. Odum, then a young associate professor in the University of Georgia's biology department, had taught a course on ecology for several semesters and was passionate about the subject.

In a meeting with his colleagues, Odum suggested that his ecology class be required of all new biology majors. His fellow scientists looked at him and laughed. Odum stormed out of the room but was not deterred. That night, he began writing a guiding set of principles that would ultimately serve as the foundation for the discipline's first textbook.

Today, no one laughs about Odum's work.

He is lionized throughout science as the father of modern ecology, and recognized by the University of Georgia as the founder of what became the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology—the world's first stand-alone college of ecology.

Before lead was banned from gasoline, before Rachel Carson published Silent Spring about the dangers of pesticides, before the United States created Earth Day—which our nation celebrates this Saturday, April 22—Odum's research and advocacy inspired the modern environmental movement.

"He was a true visionary; he saw things that others didn't," said Betty Jean Craige, University of Georgia Professor Emerita of comparative literature and the author of Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist. “He spoke intensely and passionately about saving the environment, but he used his model as a way of thinking about the world.”

Fundamentals of Ecology, which Odum published in 1953 with his younger brother and fellow ecologist Howard, was the discipline’s only textbook for more than a decade. This book was the first to suggest that scientists approach nature “top-down.” 

Odum pioneered the concept of the ecosystem, the holistic understanding of the environment as a system of interlocking biotic communities. But his ideas were not simply theoretical concepts; he leaped at every opportunity to put his ideas into practice.

With a small team of graduate students and a modest grant of $10,000 from the Atomic Energy Commission, Odum began work at what would later become UGA’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Now spanning more than 300 square miles, this facility still serves as a unique outdoor lab where researchers study energy technologies and the effects of human activities on the natural environment.

He was also instrumental in developing the University of Georgia Marine Institute, where he began a long-term analysis of salt marsh ecology and coastal food webs that inspired generations of wetland scientists.  

Twenty years after his colleagues laughed him out of a departmental meeting for suggesting that his class become part of the required biology curriculum, the board of regents granted approval for UGA’s Institute of Ecology, with Odum serving as its first director. In 1970, he became the first UGA faculty member to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. With his brother, Howard, he received the Crafoord Prize, which is widely considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for bioscientists. 

Odum produced a seemingly endless stream of books, international conference talks and journal articles, but he always held a special place in his heart for his textbook. Now in its fifth edition, Fundamentals of Ecology has been translated into more than a dozen languages. 

Odum passed away at his Athens home in 2002 at the age of 88. In 2007, the Institute of Ecology was renamed in his honor as the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology.

In a tribute to her late friend, Craige noted that he gave much of his accumulated wealth, derived largely from book royalties and awards, to UGA’s ecology program. 

“But he gave something even more valuable to the people who knew him,” she wrote. “He taught us a way to understand the world as a giant ecosystem whose parts are all interconnected, and he instilled in us an environmentalist conscience.”