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Lotka, Alfred James

Lotka, Alfred James

(b. Lemberg, Austria [now Lvov, Ukrainian S.S.R.], 2 March 1880; d. Red Bank, New Jersey, 5 December 1949)

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Born of American parents, Lotka received his primary education in France and Germany, took science degrees at the University of Birmingham, England, and subsequently attended graduate courses in physics at Leipzig and Cornell. At various times he worked for the General Chemical Company, the U.S. Patent Office, the National Bureau of Standards, and from 1911 to 1914 was editor of the Scientific American Supplement, In 1924, after having spent two years at Johns Hopkins University composing his magnum opus, Elements of Physical Biology, he joined the statistical bureau of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in New York. There he spent the remainder of his working life (eventually becoming assistant statistician). In 1935 he married Romola Beattie; they had no children. During 1938-1939 he was president of the Population Association of America, and in 1942 he was president of the American Statistical Association.

Lotka’s cardinal interests lay in the dynamics of biological populations, and this stemmed from his being struck, as a young physicist, by the similarities between chemical autocatalysis and the proliferation of organisms under specified conditions. He soon developed an “analytical” theory of population that was a function of birthrate, deathrate, and age distribution. His model was more realistic than earlier models; nevertheless he was admirably cautious about its predictive value. He also paid attention to interspecies competition. Building on some mathematical work of Volterra’s (in 1926), he formulated a growth law for two competing populations, expressing the process in terms of two interlocking differential equations.

Lotka took a broad culture—conscious view of the quantification of biological change and devoted much thought to the ecologic influence of industrial man. The Elements of Physical Biology is an ambitious work, treating the whole biological world from a mathematico-physical standpoint. Later, during his service in the insurance business, he collaborated in writing about life expectancy and allied topics.


Lotka’s most important work, Elements of Physical Biology (Baltimore, 1925), was reissued with the title Elements of Mathematical Biology (New York, 1956). This ed. carries a full 94-item bibliography of Lotka’s scientific and technical papers. With Louis I. Dublin he published three books: The Money Value of a Man (New York, 1930); Length of Life (New York, 1936); and Twenty-Five Years of Health Progress (New York, 1937). The most thorough exposition of his views on population change and evolution is to be found in Théorie analytique des “associations biologiques (Paris, 1934; 1939), an English trans, of which he was working on at the time of his death. Almost all modern books on population theory mention Lotka’s contributions.

Norman T. Gridgeman

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