Eugene P. Odum Essay

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Sometimes called the father of modern ecosystems ecology, Eugene P. Odum helped to make ecosystem a household word in the United States in the late 20th century. Beginning in the 1950s, Odum developed radiation ecology, later ecosystems ecology, as a science of interconnections among interlocking human and natural systems. This helped make ecological perspectives, which focus on interrelations and interdependence among elements of the whole, nearly synonymous with holistic views of nature and environment among varied communities of scientists, environmental managers, and environmentalists. However, these groups often understood the implications of the new ecology differently.

Odum wrote Fundamentals of Ecology, the university textbook that introduced the ecosystems perspective to generations of ecology students over the run of five editions between 1953 and 2004. In 1960 he founded the University of Georgia’s Institute of Ecology. In the same year, on the grounds of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) Savannah River Plant, he also established the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Odum was more than just “the father of modern ecosystems ecology”: his contributions to environmental science, thought, and values were significant and complex.

Gene Odum, as he was known, grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; his father was the eminent sociologist Howard W. Odum. Eugene earned two degrees in zoology at the University of North Carolina before moving to the University of Illinois, where he was awarded a doctorate in zoology in 1939 for an innovative research thesis measuring the heart rates of birds in terms of a “physiological ecology.” The following year, Odum joined the zoology faculty at the University of Georgia, where he would continue to work, later as an active emeritus, for more than six decades.

In collaboration with his younger brother, the ecologist Howard T. Odum, Eugene became increasingly interested in using the new language of cybernetics-developed during the 1940s as an interdisciplinary language of systems and feedback loops for creating electrical circuitry, control systems, computing, and artificial intelligence-to describe the relations among organisms, species, and environments.

The development of atomic sciences and technology in the United States following World War II provided resources for ecologists. The Odum brothers took advantage of the opportunities presented by government funding for large scale nuclear projects during the cold war era, along with the practical needs for environmental and waste management that these projects produced, to secure both funding and key experimental sites for what would become pathbreaking research on the modeling of ecosystems.

In 1954 the Odums studied the effects of radiation on a coral reef at the U.S. Pacific nuclear proving grounds in the Marshall Islands, seeking to better understand the interrelations, or metabolism, of the whole ecosystem by tracing its energy flows. The results of the study suggested the importance of symbiotic relations between organisms in the reef, a mutualism that reinforced long term tendencies toward ecological stability. For the Odums, nature thus had lessons to offer to society, which the ecosystems perspective helped to decipher. In 1955 they wrote:

Since man is having great difficulty in establishing symbiotic relations with the plants and animals which he requires for his existence, we certainly have much to learn from the way nature has accomplished this on the coral reef.

Eugene Odum also worked in less exotic places. In 1951 he initiated a long-term ecological research program near the Savannah River in rural South Carolina, in what had become the 300-square-mile nuclear buffer zone surrounding the Savannah River Plant, an AEC industrial site for the production of tritium and plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. Observing nature coming back in the farmlands evacuated to create the buffer zone, Odum and a team of graduate students added to theories of ecological succession and contributed a wide range of population ecologies based on long-term observation in the new wilderness at the species level. In 1960, the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory was established on the site, administered by the University of Georgia but funded chiefly by the AEC (and through the present day by the U.S. Department of Energy).

Amid the explosion of federal scientific funding in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, Eugene Odum built an ecosystems ecology, both conceptually and institutionally, around America’s Cold War nuclear architecture. Throughout his career he would continue to stress the necessity of ecological research and education for solving practical environmental problems, including ecological applications both in the management of radioactive and industrial wastes and in conservation practices. Odum was among the influential scientists who brought the atomic age together with the age of ecology, and he remains an important figure in the history of both.

Bibliography:

  1. Betty Jean Craige, Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist (University of Georgia Press, 2001);
  2. Joel Hagen, An Entangled Bank: The Origins of Ecosystem Ecology (Rutgers University Press, 1992);
  3. Eugene P. Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology, 2nd , in collaboration with Howard T. Odum (W.B. Saunders Company, 1959);
  4. Eugene P. Odum, “The Strategy of Ecosystems Development,” Science (v.164, 1969);
  5. Howard T. Odum and Eugene P. Odum, “Trophic Structure and Productivity of a Windward Coral Reef Community on Eniwetok Atoll,” Ecological Monographs (v.25, 1955).

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