Ecology Eugene and Howard Odum
Joel Hagen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0190


Eugene P. (b. 1913–d. 2002) and Howard T. (b. 1924–d. 2002) Odum were leading figures in the development of ecosystem ecology after the Second World War. They were from a prominent academic family. Their father, the sociologist Howard Washington Odum, was a leading organicist thinker. From their father, Eugene and Howard took the idea of the integration of parts to form a larger social whole, which they later expanded in their holistic ecosystem thinking. The New Deal progressivism that their father espoused became the basis for the Odums’ optimism about protecting the environment through rational planning based on the application of ecological principles. More generally, Howard Washington Odum encouraged his sons’ boyhood interests in science, particularly ornithology. Despite their close identification with the study of ecosystems, both of the younger Odums maintained a strong interest in natural history throughout their careers. The two brothers had contrasting personalities, intellectual perspectives, and styles of research. Yet, despite the differences and some sibling rivalry, they collaborated in a number of significant ways to influence the direction of modern ecology. Most importantly, their deep commitment to the ecosystem as the central concept in ecology and environmental sciences shaped their work, both independently and collaboratively. During the early 1950s, they conducted an important study of ecosystem function on Eniwetok Atoll, the site of US nuclear weapons testing. Like much of their ecosystem research, the study was supported by the US Atomic Energy Commission. Although not directed specifically toward environmental issues of radiation, the work highlighted the coral reef ecosystem as a highly integrated and cooperative assemblage of organisms. The resulting publication was awarded the Mercer Prize from the Ecological Society of America in 1956. Three years later, the second edition of Eugene Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology was published. This was an expanded edition that included important new chapters on ecosystem energetics and biogeochemical cycling written by H.T. After these early collaborative projects, the Odums pursued largely independent careers and rarely co-authored publications. Nonetheless, their interests in ecosystems continued to intertwine, and although H.T. did not directly contribute to later editions of Fundamentals of Ecology, his important contributions to a theoretical systems ecology continued to inform his brother’s highly influential textbook. The symbiotic relationship between the Odum brothers was recognized later in their careers when they were jointly awarded the Prix de l’Insitut de la Vie in 1975 by the French government and the 1987 Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.


Although he was an indifferent student, Eugene matriculated at the University of North Carolina when he was only fifteen years old (Craige 2001, Meyer and Johnston 2003). He continued his extracurricular ornithological studies, sometimes at the expense of his coursework, which resulted in several publications before he graduated. Lackluster grades nearly derailed his application for graduate studies in the Zoology Department at the University of Illinois, but the ecologist Charles Kendeigh intervened to get him accepted into the program. Under Kendeigh’s direction, Odum completed a dissertation on the heart rate of nesting birds (Odum 1941). Eugene spent almost his entire professional career at the University of Georgia where he was hired as the first ecologist in the Zoology Department in 1940. He continued his ornithological studies, particularly on the physiology of migrating birds. However, his interests expanded to research on ecosystems after the Second World War (Barrett 2005). Intellectually, the shift toward ecosystem studies encouraged a multidisciplinary approach to ecology that fit uncomfortably within the institutional setting of a zoology department (Odum 1977). An enduring legacy of Eugene Odum’s tenure at the University of Georgia was his successful creation of an autonomous Institute of Ecology, which became a major center of education and research after it was finally established in 1967. Odum also served as president of the Ecological Society of America in 1964. As a boy, Howard Thomas Odum (usually referred to as H.T.) had a keen boyhood interest in electronics, which later found expression through his professional interests in using analog computers to model ecosystem functions. He also shared his older brother’s interest in ornithology and published two articles on bird migration when he was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina (Odum 1948, Barnett 2001). H.T.’s undergraduate studies were interrupted by three years of military service during the Second World War. He gained professional recognition for his work predicting hurricanes as a meteorologist with the United States Army Air Corps, and he later claimed that this experience stimulated his interest in large, complex systems. After the war, H.T. completed a PhD at Yale under the direction of G. Evelyn Hutchinson. His dissertation on the global biogeochemical cycle of strontium continues to be influential (Odum 1951, Limburg 2004). Unlike his older brother whose professional work was closely identified with a single university, H.T. pursued a peripatetic career. He taught biology at the University of Florida for four years. He later held a succession of academic positions at Duke University, University of Texas, University of Puerto Rico, and University of North Carolina, before returning to University of Florida for the final thirty-two years of his long career.

  • Barnett, Cynthia. 2001.Interview with Howard T. Odum. Gainesville, FL: Center for Wetlands.

    E-mail Citation »

    An extensive 120-page interview that includes questions and answers about Odum’s childhood, education, and professional career. Odum’s comments about his complex relationship with his older brother are remarkably candid and revealing. Because a complete biography of Odum has not been written, this interview provides an essential source of information about his life. Available online University of Florida Digital Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries.

  • Barrett, Gary W. 2005. Eugene Pleasants Odum. In Biographical memoirs 87. By Gary W. Barrett, 1–16. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences Press.

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    This short memoir written by the director of the Institute of Ecology and co-author of the fifth edition of Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology, presents a concise overview of Eugene’s contributions to research, education, and the institutionalization of ecology at the University of Georgia. This memoir also includes a list of awards and honors, as well as a selected bibliography of Odum’s major publications.

  • Center for Environmental Policy. Univ. of Florida. Howard T. Odum Bibliography.

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    A list of Odum’s 300-plus publications, all organized by date.

  • Craige, Betty Jean. 2001. Eugene Odum: Ecosystem ecologist and environmentalist. Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press.

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    Written by a close family friend and university colleague, this sympathetic biography provides unique insights into Eugene Odum’s upbringing, intellectual development, family, and professional life. It also describes the complex relationship—both competitive and cooperative—between Eugene and H.T. Craige compiled a list of Eugene Odum’s publications at the end of the book.

  • Ewel, John J. 2003. Resolution of respect: Howard Thomas Odum (1924–2002). Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 84:13–15.

    DOI: 10.1890/0012-9623(2003)84[13:HTO]2.0.CO;2E-mail Citation »

    This brief memoir by one of his students highlights the breadth of H. T. Odum’s interests and the novelty of his ideas. According to Ewel, Odum was a “complex, kind, original, jigsaw puzzle of a scholar.” Although remembered for his abstract ecological theorizing, Ewel claims that H.T. could identify every songbird in the eastern United States and every North American seashell.

  • Limburg, Karin E. 2004. The biogeochemistry of strontium: A review of H.T. Odum’s contributions. Ecological Modeling 178.1: 31–33.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2003.12.022E-mail Citation »

    A brief historical essay emphasizing how Odum built on the theoretical foundation of Lotka, Tansley, and Hutchinson to create a classic study of biogeochemical cycling that continues to be relevant to ecology even in the 21st century.

  • Meyer, J. Michael, and David W. Johnston. 2003. In memoriam: Eugene Pleasants Odum, 1913–2002. Auk 120:536–583.

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    A broad overview of Eugene Odum’s life and career that highlights his early and continuing interests in ornithology, as well as his ecosystem ecology.

  • Odum, Eugene P. 1941. Variations in the heart rate of birds: A study in physiological ecology. Ecological Monographs 11:299–326.

    DOI: 10.2307/1943206E-mail Citation »

    Odum used a piezo-electric sensor to measure heart rate in nesting birds. The research was one of the earliest examples of non-invasive physiological measurements of animals in the wild using remote sensors. The research was also noteworthy because Odum emphasized the importance of understanding the functioning of the whole organism in its natural environment. He contrasted this holistic, ecological approach to the more traditional physiological approach of studying isolated organ systems.

  • Odum, Howard T. 1948. The bird navigation controversy. Auk 65:584–597.

    DOI: 10.2307/4080609E-mail Citation »

    One of Odum’s earliest publications that demonstrated not only his interest in ornithology but also his willingness to participate in professional scientific controversies even as a student.

  • Odum, Howard T. 1951. The stability of the world strontium cycle. Science 114:407–411.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.114.2964.407E-mail Citation »

    A shortened version of Odum’s doctoral research, which gained widespread recognition. His claim that global strontium levels had remained stable for 40 million years was cited as one of the top scientific discoveries of the year reported at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in a news article in Life magazine (9 January 1950, p. 20).

  • Odum, Eugene P. 1977. The emergence of ecology as a new integrative discipline. Science 195:1289–1293.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.195.4284.1289E-mail Citation »

    A revealing account of the condescending attitude toward ecology by members of the Department of Zoology at the University of Georgia when Odum was hired. Odum attributed the “revolutionary” shift toward an integrative, interdisciplinary approach in his thinking to the influence of his father and collaborative research with his brother.

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