May 25, 2017

Professor Eugene Odum

An obituary for the world’s most respected ecologist, Dr. Eugene Odum, who passed away on August 10, 2002. It is a summary of an obituary that appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald.


Eugene Odum was born September 17, 1913. He grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father, Howard W. Odum, was a professor of sociology. Eugene Odum’s brother, named Howard after their father, was born in 1924 and was to become a noted ecologist as well.

He received his bachelor’s and master’s from the University of North Carolina and spent one formative summer as at the Allegheny School of Natural History. His first faculty post was in the department of biology at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1937, he entered the University of Illinois to work on his doctoral degree.

The more Odum thought about ecosystems, the more he was convinced that there should be a way to study how one part affects another. Only crude tools were available to understand how biological and physical systems interacted, yet Odum set about creating a discipline that took a revolutionary view of how ecosystems worked.

There had been many books on the ecology of parts of the natural world for years but there was no single book that examined the entire ecosystem, starting from the top down. His book, Fundamentals of Ecology, was, for an astonishing 10 years, the only textbook available worldwide on ecosystem ecology. It was translated into many languages and was crucial in the training of an entire generation of ecologists. Odum argued that ecology was not a subdivision of biology or anything else. Instead, he said it should be an integrated discipline that brings all of the sciences together instead of breaking them apart.

Odum was also deeply involved in the establishment of and staffing of the UGA Marine Institute on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, which has continued its mission of marine research for more than 40 years. All of Odum’s varied pursuits came together when the University’s Institute of Ecology was founded in 1960, with Odum as its first director. It immediately made a name for itself, training a generation of scientists committed to Odum’s holistic method of looking at the world around us.

In addition to Fundamentals of Ecology, Odum published more than a dozen other books.

Numerous honours came Odum’s way during his long professional life. He was elected to the National Academy of Science and was named an honorary member of the British Ecological Society. With his brother, Howard W. Odum, he received the $80,000 international ‘Institut de la Vie’ prize from the French government. He also received the Tyler Ecology Award and a check for $150,000, presented by President Jimmy Carter in ceremonies at the White House.

In 1987, Eugene and Howard Odum won the Craaford Prize given by the Royal Swedish Academy, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, which is not awarded in ecology. Eugene Odum’s share of the money, $125,000 went to set up a private foundation for the promotion of research and education in ecology.

Odum retired from the University of Georgia in 1984 but he never stopped coming to work every day and published his last book in 1998, Ecological Vignettes. He was also the subject of a documentary film that was shown a number of times on Georgia Public Television and which has been used in ecology classes on campus.

Odum’s death was preceded by that of his wife, Martha and his two sons, William Eugene Odum, also an ecologist, and Daniel Thomas Odum.

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