Odum, Dr. Eugene P. (1913 – ) American Ecologist

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Dr. Eugene P. Odum (1913 )
American ecologist

Eugene P. Odum has been called "the ecologist's ecologist," meaning that he has been of special significance to his colleagues in the development of the discipline, and in formulating its content, outlines, and boundaries. He helped lay the foundations for what might be called the "modern" study of ecology in the 1940s and 1950s by redirecting the field to studies based on energetics, on the relatively new ecosystem concept, and on functional as well as structural analyses of living communities. From early in his career, he has worked to define general principles in ecology. His colleagues and associates have recognized him by electing him president of the Ecological Society of America , through election to the National Academy of Sciences , and through the awarding of prestigious prizes, including the Tyler Award in 1977 and the Crafoord Prize in 1987.

Odum was born in Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, to an academic family. His father, Howard W. Odum, was a well-known sociologist, remembered today especially for his work on regionalism. His brother, Howard T. Odum, is a well-known systems ecologist. Eugene Odum received his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from the University of North Carolina, and his Ph.D. in ecology and ornithology from the University of Illinois in 1939. He spent brief stints as an instructor at Western Reserve University and as a research biologist at the Edmund Niles Huck Preserve in New York. In 1940, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Georgia, spent the next four decades there, and since his retirement in 1984, has been an emeritus professor. During his tenure in Georgia, the university has become a world center for the study of ecology, through various departments but also through the Institute of Ecology, which he helped initiate and of which he was the longtime director.

Odum's best-known work is his "landmark" general text, Fundamentals of Ecology, first published in 1953, with a third edition published in 1971. This text dominated the market for two decades and is still a book to consult, including an extensive and still useful reference list. Odum revised the third edition "in light of the increasing importance of the subject in human affairs." That edition is organized into three parts: basic ecological principles and concepts, emphasizing energy and ecosystems; "the habitat approach," which discusses freshwater, marine, estuarine, and terrestrial ecology; and applications and technology, which includes chapters on resources, pollution and environmental health , radiation ecology, remote sensing, and microbial ecology. Since Odum is a well-known radiation ecologist, that chapter especially is still timely.

Odum's early work was on birds, an interest threaded into his publications for many years. His research focused for several years on various aspects of radiation ecology. He turned early to an emphasis on energetics and on ecosystem studies, becoming almost as well known for systems ecology as his younger brother. A lot of his work has been on productivity in estuaries and marshes. And he is known for his work on old fields in the southern United States. That research has, in many instances, been applied to problems in environmental management, and to issues of human impact and reciprocity.

In recent years, a considerable amount of his energy has been devoted to human interactions with and impacts on environmental systems. That last interest has turned Odum into something of a philosopher, resulting in the publication of several papers on values and ethics. One influence of his thinking that will be debated for a long time is his repeated attempts to outline ecology as an integrative discipline, and to locate ecologists as scientists interested in every level of integration, from micro to macro. That work has led him several times, with mixed success, to move away from the classical reductionist approach in science and to try an outline for a holistic approach in ecology.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Odum, E. P. Ecology: A Bridge Between Science and Society. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1996.

. Fundamentals of Ecology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1971.


Odum, E. P. "The Emergence of Ecology as a New Integrative Discipline." Science 195, no. 4284 (March 25, 1977).

. "Great Ideas in Ecology for the 1990s." BioScience 42, no. 7 (July 1992): 542545.