Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist. Reprint ed. Betty Jean Craige. University of Georgia Press, Athens, 2002. 226 pp., illus. $17.95 (ISBN 0820324736 paper).
Last year saw the death of Eugene Odum, often hailed as “the father of modern ecology.” Gene Odum's ideas about ecosystem ecology inspired a whole generation of ecologists (I was one of them). With his pioneering Fundamentals of Ecology, published in 1953, he propelled ecology from a subdiscipline of biology to a separate and reputable discipline. Later, with the advent of Earth Day, ecology became a household word and, to many people, indistinguishable from environmentalism.
Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist is the first biography of Odum. The author, Betty Jean Craige—University Professor of Comparative Literature and director of the Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia—was a personal friend of Eugene and Martha Odum for many years. She has written several books on cultural holism.
Craige's book chronicles Gene Odum's personal and academic career paths. Although this book, like most biographies, documents the major events of the subject's life, Craige focuses on the influences that shaped Odum's ideas about ecosystem ecology and his intellectual journey through that discipline into environmental activism. As with many histories, this volume presents Odum's academic career as more deliberate than it probably was—a common distortion in biographies, induced by hindsight.
From the time of his early graduate work at the University of Illinois studying bird physiology, Odum was drawn to researchers who studied “the whole,” and especially to animal ecologist Victor Shelford and plant ecologist Frederic Clements. Odum became a prophet of the top-down approach to the study of natural systems, emphasizing the ecosystem as the basic unit with which ecologists must ultimately deal. He would eventually be identified by his maxim “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Odum inherited from his father, a sociologist, a predisposition to look at the whole of a system and to be keenly aware of social responsibilities. His book Fundamentals of Ecology included human beings in ecosystems and argued that cooperation was as important in ecosystems as competition. Another important family influence was Gene Odum's brother, Howard Thomas (H. T.) Odum, a physical scientist 10 years younger than Gene. Craige's book outlines the unusual and prolific scientific relationship between the brothers.
Odum was always connecting specific research to the larger picture—an uncommon practice in academia, which specializes in reducing complex phenomena to narrow, researchable questions. He had an ability, rare among academics, to synthesize information from different disciplines, especially from the natural and social sciences. One of my fondest memories of Odum is from my time as a PhD student at the University of Georgia, on my first day at the Institute of Ecology. My major professor, Bob Todd, was introducing me to people. Invariably, once they learned that I had just completed my master's degree at Plattsburgh State University in New York, they would inquire, “What did you do your thesis on?” and I would respond quite automatically with the title of my research project, “The effects of 2,4-D [a herbicide] on nitrogen fixation and soil respiration.” They would usually nod and move the conversation to what I would be doing at the institute. Gene Odum was the only one who pensively responded, “What are the effects of 2,4-D on soil processes? We need to know the impacts of the agricultural chemicals added to our lands.” The question illustrated his abiding desire to apply academic research in a practical way.
Odum's legacy is the result of his tireless efforts to encourage students and the public to consider the social implications of ecosystem science. This, he hoped, would inspire alternative patterns of behavior. He never failed to emphasize the implications of ecosystem science for environmentalism. At the end of the 1960s and during the 1970s, when youth rebelled against capitalism and government in general, the concept of the ecosystem became a basis for measuring harm to the environment inflicted by corporate greed.
The book is well researched. Sources include friends, colleagues, students, and the Odums themselves, who provided letters and allowed Craige to use taped interviews. Craige's close association with Gene Odum enabled her to present a personal and in-depth account that treats those parts of a life that are often hard to document—for example, character, habits, and attitude. She explains the main concepts of Odum's famous articles quite well, in terms understandable by nonecologists (much as Odum himself did). Indeed, large sections of the book are devoted to explaining Odum's ideas of ecosystem development, and the intellectual reactions and challenges to them, sometimes with more repetition than necessary. Two appendixes list Odum's publications, professional milestones, and honors.
All scientists could benefit from reading the description of how Odum identified and pursued emerging concerns, sought and obtained federal funding, and built long-lasting research institutions such as the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, the Marine Institute at Sapelo Island, and the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia. Countless students, faculty, and visiting researchers have benefited from these institutions and especially from personal encounters with Gene. Some of my fondest graduate school memories are of having lunch with him on humid, sunny Georgia days. He was approachable and unassuming, graciously encouraging students to eat with him. He had a reputation for giving students high priority; he always enjoyed talking to them—and listening as well.
Craige's book portrays the life and vision of a remarkable individual. It will be an inspiration to scientists from many disciplines.