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

Introduction

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.

Biographies

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.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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;2Save Citation »Export Citation »E-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.

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  • 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.2003.12.022Save Citation »Export Citation »E-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.

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  • 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.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/1943206Save Citation »Export Citation »E-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.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/4080609Save Citation »Export Citation »E-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.

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

    DOI: 10.1126/science.114.2964.407Save Citation »Export Citation »E-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).

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

    DOI: 10.1126/science.195.4284.1289Save Citation »Export Citation »E-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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The Ecosystem Concept

After the Second World War, Eugene Odum’s interests began to shift from physiological ecology to ecosystem ecology (Hagen 1992). This was due in part to the influence of his brother Howard, who was pursuing biogeochemical studies at Yale University under the direction of G. Evelyn Hutchinson. The shift was also due to opportunities for field research supported by the Atomic Energy Commission at the nearby Savannah River nuclear reactor site. The studies initially involved animal population surveys and studies of plant succession but gradually developed a broader range of ecological and environmental research. With strong encouragement from his father, Eugene also began writing Fundamentals of Ecology (Odum 1953). With its distinctive “top-down” focus on ecosystems, Fundamentals of Ecology provided a way of disseminating the research that he and his brother were conducting, while synthesizing it within a broader holistic perspective on ecology (Odum 1957). Although not formally identified as a co-author, H. T. Odum contributed chapters on energy flow and biogeochemistry for the early editions of the textbook. It eventually went through five editions and was translated into twelve languages. Central to the Odums’ ecology was a holistic conception of the ecosystem, easily encapsulated in the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (Golley 1993). This way of thinking was in sharp contrast to the original ecosystem concept formulated by Arthur Tansley in 1938. Tansley’s mechanistic concept of the ecosystem was the core of a broad philosophical critique of holism and organicism in ecology, particularly Frederic Clements’s idea of the plant community as a superorganism (Anker 2002, Ayers 2012, Van der Valk 2014). Although he never endorsed the idea of the superorganism, Eugene Odum routinely drew analogies between organisms and ecosystems, both of which exhibited forms of metabolism, development, and homeostasis. According to Odum, he inherited his organicism not so much from Clements directly, as from his mentor Victor Shelford. H. T. Odum’s holism came by a different route. His interest in understanding large systems was stimulated by his wartime experiences predicting hurricanes as a meteorologist. His early ideas on biogeochemical cycling and energy flow in ecosystems developed within the context of the earlier research on aquatic systems done by his teacher G. Evelyn Hutchinson and protégé Raymond Lindeman. Even more influential on his thinking, according to H.T., was the physical biologist Alfred Lotka (Kingsland 1985, Taylor 1988). For both Odums the ecosystem concept provided the basis for a broad interdisciplinary and integrative science aimed, largely, but not completely, on ameliorating human impacts on the environment (Madison 1997, Kingsland 2005).

  • Anker, Peder. 2002. The context of ecosystem theory. Ecosystems 5:611–613.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10021-002-0106-8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A short but insightful article on Arthur Tansley’s philosophical commitments that provided the immediate context for his early formulation of the ecosystem concept. Of particular interest is Anker’s claim that Tansley’s deep interest in Freudian psychology was particularly important for his thinking about ecosystems.

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  • Ayers, Peter. 2012. Shaping ecology: The life of Arthur Tansley. Chichester, UK: John Wiley.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118290927Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This biography is indispensable for understanding the intellectual breadth and depth of an important founding figure in ecology. Ayers provides important details about the long professional and personal relationship between Tansley and Frederic Clements as context for the development of the ecosystem concept.

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  • Golley, Frank Benjamin. 1993. A history of the ecosystem concept: More than the sum of the parts. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    Written by a prominent ecologist and longtime colleague of Eugene Odum, this is a detailed participant history of the development of ecosystem ecology by one of its early and enthusiastic proponents. The presentation sharply contrasts with Hagen’s An Entangled Bank, and the two books benefit from the juxtaposition of perspectives.

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  • Hagen, Joel B. 1992. An entangled bank: The origins of ecosystem ecology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

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    This history traces the intellectual development of the ecosystem concept from earlier 19th- and early-20th-century ecological ideas and emphasizes the tension between ecosystem ecology and evolutionary ecology beginning in the 1960s.

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  • Kingsland, Sharon E. 1985. Modeling nature: Episodes in the history of population ecology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Although this book focuses on population ecology rather than ecosystem ecology, it provides a detailed account of Alfred Lotka’s physical biology and its influence of G. E. Hutchinson and his students. This account should be read in conjunction with Peter Taylor’s article on H. T. Odum.

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  • Kingsland, Sharon E. 2005. The evolution of American ecology, 1890–2000. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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    Kingsland includes a chapter on the development of the ecosystem concept that imbeds this episode within the broader context of the disciplinary, institutional, and social history of American ecology in the postwar era. Ecosystem ecology provided a broad integrative science directed toward influencing human activities during a time of environmental crisis.

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  • Madison, Mark Glen. 1997. Potatoes made of oil: Eugene and Howard Odum and the origins and limits of American agroecology. Environment and History 3:209–238.

    DOI: 10.3197/096734097779555881Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on how the Odums’ ecosystem ecology supported a critique of the Green Revolution and its reliance on fossil fuels. Instead, the Odums argued for agricultural approaches based on the type of steady-state energy flow typical of mature ecosystems.

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  • Odum, Eugene P. 1953. Fundamentals of ecology. Philadelphia: Saunders.

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    Later editions of Odum’s textbook were published in 1959, 1971, 1983, and 2005. The fourth edition was described as an updated and abbreviated version of the textbook and entitled Basic Ecology. The fifth edition returned to the original title and was co-authored with Gary W. Barrett, introducing landscape as an integrated ecological level of organization. H.T. was acknowledged as a contributor to the first two editions but not as a co-author. This slight was a source of tension between the brothers. In the third edition, H.T. was acknowledged as contributing to the first two editions.

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  • Odum, E. P. 1957. The ecosystem approach in the teaching of ecology illustrated with sample class data. Ecology 38:531–535.

    DOI: 10.2307/1929901Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An early presentation of Odum’s holistic, pedagogical philosophy based on ecosystem structure and function but also the result of students collecting data at the sites where Odum conducted his own research.

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  • Taylor, Peter J. 1988. Technocratic optimism: H.T. Odum and the partial transformation of ecological metaphor after World War II. Journal of the History of Biology 21:213–244.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00146987Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This short article remains the best source of information about Howard Odum’s approach to research and his impact on modern ecology. In lieu of a biography, Taylor’s critical analysis must be read in conjunction with the more anecdotal reminiscences written by Howard Odum’s students and colleagues.

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  • Van der Valk, Arnold G. 2014. From formation to ecosystem: Tansley’s response to Clements’ Climax. Journal of the History of Biology 47:293–321.

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    Places the development of Tansley’s ecosystem concept within the broader context of community ecology and the long disagreement between Tansley and Clements about the causes of succession and the reality of a climax community. Skillfully using correspondence between the two scientists, Van der Valk demonstrates how the thirty-year discussion of succession ultimately led to Tansley’s formulation of the ecosystem.

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Energy Flow in Ecosystems

The ecosystem concept provided the Odums with several theoretical and methodological resources. As a central concept, it provided a focal point for ecological research, much as the cell did for molecular biologists (Odum 1964). It provided a rhetorical justification for non-reductionistic, large-scale research projects that focused on the “big picture” by shifting attention away from species to more abstract trophic levels, including producers, various consumers, and decomposers (Mitsch and Day 2004). Finally, it emphasized the importance of energy flow as the driving force for all other ecological processes such as biogeochemical cycling and succession. For H.T., in particular, energy became the central focus of ecological research, both experimental and theoretical (Odum 1971). As a young assistant professor at the University of Florida, H.T. he began two ambitious experimental studies to measure the overall “metabolism” of ecosystems: one in a freshwater spring in central Florida and the other on a coral reef in the Pacific Ocean. For Odum, Silver Springs provided an ideal natural laboratory for studying productivity and the movement of energy through a community of organisms. By measuring dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide upstream and downstream, Odum was able to construct an energy budget comparing photosynthetic productivity of aquatic plants and the respiration of various trophic levels of producers, consumers, and decomposers. He found that most of photosynthetic productivity was consumed by plants themselves, through their own respiration, but that about 12 percent was passed on to herbivores. At each step in the food chain similar respiratory losses were recorded (Odum 1956, Odum 1957). Odum’s diagram of energy flow through the aquatic system became famous and continues to be reproduced in textbooks of ecology and general biology. H.T. joined his brother in a similar research project supported by the Atomic Energy Commission at Eniwetok Atoll (Odum and Odum 1955). Eniwetok was an important site of nuclear weapons testing, and the Odums’ ecological study was part of a broader move by the commission to understand the biology, geology, and oceanography of the Marshall Islands and to investigate the effects of radiation on the environment. The Odums discovered that the coral animals on the reef housed symbiotic, photosynthetic algae inside their bodies. Applying the techniques that H.T. had perfected at Silver Springs, the Odums calculated the overall “metabolism” of the complete ecosystem, balancing the photosynthetic productivity of the symbiotic algae with the respiration of the living community as a whole. They described the reef as a highly cooperative system where the coral polyps provided protection for endosymbiotic photosynthetic algae that provided food for the coral. For the Odums, Eniwetok became a paradigm case of an ancient ecosystem that had developed a high degree of stability through the obligate mutualism of its constituent populations. The study won the Mercer Award from the Ecological Society of America in 1956.

  • Mitsch, William J., and John W. Day Jr. 2004. Thinking big with whole-ecosystem studies and ecosystem restoration–a legacy of H.T. Odum. Ecological Modelling 178:133–155.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2003.12.038Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Mitsch and Day review several large-scale research projects that Odum conducted at different times during his career, emphasizing how these ambitious studies were a theoretical and methodological break from traditional ecological research. The studies also provided a bridge between the theoretical understanding of ecosystems and efforts to manipulate these natural systems for human applications such as wastewater treatment.

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  • Odum, Howard T. 1956. Primary production in flowing waters. Limnology and Oceanography 1:102–117.

    DOI: 10.4319/lo.1956.1.2.0102Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Odum’s contribution to a symposium on primary production at a joint meeting of the Ecological Society of America and the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography in 1955. Odum described the methods used by him at Silver Springs and by him and his brother at Eniwetok. It also placed these research projects into a broader theoretical framework employing his famous energy flow diagrams.

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  • Odum, Howard T. 1957. Trophic structure and productivity of Silver Springs. Ecological Monographs 27:55–112.

    DOI: 10.2307/1948571Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    For Odum, Silver Springs provided an ideal natural laboratory for studying productivity and the movement of energy through a community of organisms. Although this article appeared after the report of research on the coral reef at Eniwetok, the Silver Springs research had begun in 1952 and it was during this earlier period that H.T. developed experimental techniques used in both studies.

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  • Odum, Eugene P. 1964. The new ecology. BioScience 14:14–16.

    DOI: 10.2307/1293228Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Odum identifies the “new ecology” with the study of ecosystems and claims that ecologists can use the ecosystem as a central concept much as molecular biologists focus on the cell.

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  • Odum, Eugene P. 1968. Energy flow in ecosystems: A historical review. American Zoologist 8:11–18.

    DOI: 10.1093/icb/8.1.11Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This intriguing historical review places the Odums’ research within a broader intellectual lineage dating back to the 19th-century aquatic studies of Stephen Forbes. Odum identifies ten important historical episodes, half of which include contributions by the Odums.

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  • Odum, Howard T. 1971. Environment, power, and society. New York: John Wiley.

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    This early synthesis of Odum’s theoretical and experimental studies provides the most accessible overview of his approach to ecosystem ecology and its applications to environmental problems. An updated version of the book was published by Columbia University Press in 2007.

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  • Odum, Howard T., and Eugene P. Odum. 1955. Trophic structure and productivity of a windward coral reef community on Eniwetok Atoll. Ecological Monographs 25:291–320.

    DOI: 10.2307/1943285Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This was an early example of ecological research supported by the US Atomic Energy Commission and it presaged the agency’s continuing support of ecosystem research by the Odums.

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Atomic Energy

The US Atomic Energy Commission was an early supporter of research on ecosystems (Bocking 1995), and it played a major role in the careers of both Eugene and H. T. Odum in several ways. Eugene’s original interest in ecosystems was stimulated in part by a small A.E.C. contract to conduct species surveys and studies of ecological succession in areas surrounding the Savannah River nuclear power plant. Continued support from the agency provided crucial support for Odum’s successful attempt to create an Institute of Ecology separate from the Zoology Department at the University of Georgia (Barrett and Barrett 2001). Eugene’s early association with the A.E.C. also led to the agency’s support of the research at Eniwetok that brought the Odums recognition among professional ecologists. Radiation ecology provided radiotrancers and other techniques that proved useful for studying energy flow, biogeochemical cycling, and other ecosystem functions (Odum, Kuenzler, and Blunt 1958). Eugene Odum optimistically believed that the atomic age could provide tools for solving the very environmental problems that it was creating. He pointed to radioactive tracers, which he used for some of his own research, as an example of how nuclear technology could be used to gain useful insights into ecological processes (Odum 1965). Atomic energy was equally important for supporting large-scale research conducted by H. T. Odum. Supported by large grants from the A.E.C., he led a team of nearly one hundred scientists in a four-year study (1963–1967) of a tropical rainforest in Puerto Rico. A circular area of the forest approximately 160 meters in diameter was irradiated with radioactive cesium for three months to study the ecological effects of radiation and the ability of the ecosystem to recover from these effects. Odum and his coworkers also constructed a huge plastic cylinder fifty-five feet tall and about fifty feet in diameter to measure metabolism and transpiration of a section of the forest (Odum and Pigeon 1970). The study was a precursor to later interdisciplinary team-oriented projects in “big ecology” (Coleman 2010).

  • Barrett, Gary W., and Terry L. Barrett, eds. 2001. 2004. Holistic science: The evolution of the Georgia Institute of Ecology (1940–2000). New York: Taylor & Francis.

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    A historical overview of the formative years of an important center of ecological research and education, which later evolved into the first standalone school of ecology. Odum wrote the forward and contributed a chapter on the early history of the institute.

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  • Bocking, Stephen. 1995. Ecosystems, ecologists, and the atom: Environmental research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Journal of the History of Biology 28:1–47.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01061245Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Bocking analyzes the important role that the A.E.C. played in supporting ecosystem research and the tensions between the disciplinary development of ecology and environmental concerns related atomic energy.

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  • Coleman, David C. 2010. Big ecology: The emergence of ecosystem science. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520264755.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A participant account of how ecosystem science developed during the second half of the 20th century written by a leading ecologist. Although focusing primarily on later episodes, Coleman does provide insights into how early ecosystem studies contributed to big ecology programs oriented around interdisciplinary teams of researchers.

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  • Odum, Eugene P. 1965. Feedback between radiation ecology and general ecology. Health Physics 11:1257–1262.

    DOI: 10.1097/00004032-196512000-00002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Odum argued that radiotracers and other techniques from radiation ecology provided powerful tools for investigating ecosystem functions such as energy flow and biogeochemical cycling. Using the metaphor of feedback, he also argued that the interaction of general ecology and radiation ecology could provide an “error detector” for identifying and correcting adverse human impacts on natural ecosystems.

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  • Odum, Eugene P., Edward J. Kuenzler, and Sister Marion Xavier Blunt. 1958. Uptake of P32 and primary productivity in marine benthic algae. Limnology and Oceanography 3:340–345.

    DOI: 10.4319/lo.1958.3.3.0340Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An early example of radiotracer studies conducted by Odum and his students beginning in the late 1950s. Odum got the idea of using of P32 uptake to measure photosynthesis from earlier research conducted by G. Evelyn Hutchinson on biogeochemical cycling in freshwater ponds near Yale University.

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  • Odum, H. T., and Robert F. Pigeon. 1970. A tropical rain forest: A study of irradiation and ecology at El Verde, Puerto Rico. Oak Ridge, TN: Division of Technical Information, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

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    H.T. conceived this large-scale study on the model of a military task force, with himself as commander. Individual scientists had to agree not to publish their results before the final report appeared. The result was a massive ten-pound book, some 1,600 pages long, and divided into 111 chapters.

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Systems Ecology

From the beginning of his career, H. T. Odum took a serious interest in ecological theory, particularly in the application of thermodynamics to ecosystem processes by reducing all of the complexity of ecological systems to energy relationships. Following an idea first proposed by Alfred Lotka during the 1920s, H.T. formulated the “maximum power principle,” which he considered to be a new law of thermodynamics (Odum and Pinkerton 1955). According to this principle, all natural systems sacrifice efficiency to maximize power output. Turning to another early suggestion by Lotka, Odum argued that natural selection favored the persistence of those biological systems that maximized power output. Thus the maximum power principle provided the basis for understanding the stable state that Odum claimed to find in mature ecosystems including Silver Springs, the coral reef at Eniwetok, and the El Verde rainforest in Puerto Rico. Formulated early in his career, this idea unified all of Odum’s later work (Hall 1995). Even more than mechanical models, Odum was drawn to electrical circuits. During the late 1950s he began to simulate ecosystem dynamics using simple analog computers. Trophic levels and other ecological units were simulated by electronic components such as resistors and capacitors, and energy flow by the current moving through the circuits. Later, he replaced these physical models with a more abstract set of symbols that retained the look of traditional electronic symbols but that Odum hoped would provide a more general way of representing energy relationships. This new energy circuit language, which he called “energese,” was an important contribution to ecosystem modeling, and some admirers later claimed that it marked the birth of a more general theoretical discipline of systems ecology. Critics have charged that this emphasis on energy is, itself, a form of reductionism that compares unfavorably to more pluralistic approaches to systems theory (Hammond 1997). Although Eugene was less mathematically inclined and was less involved in the development of formal systems ecology than his younger brother, he was drawn to cybernetic ideas (Patten and Odum 1981, Odum 1992). He often equated the feedback loops that H.T. described in ecosystems with the homeostatic self-regulation found in organisms. He claimed that ecological succession led to greater homeostatic regulation and that as ecosystems matured they became more stable (Odum 1969). This analogy also could be used to discuss stress and degradation in natural ecosystems, which E.P. equated with a breakdown or disruption of homeostatic mechanisms (Odum 1985). These claims were controversial, and although some ecologists were drawn to the idea of the cybernetic ecosystem, the idea was also widely criticized (Hagen 2014).

  • Hagen, Joel B. 2014. Eugene Odum and the homeostatic ecosystem: The resilience of an idea. In Traditions of systems theory. Edited by Darrell P. Arnold. New York: Routledge, 179–193.

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    Traces the sources and development of Odum’s ideas about homeostasis in ecosystems and the controversy that his claims engendered.

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  • Hall, Charles A. S., ed. 1995. Maximum power: The ideas and applications of H.T. Odum. Niwot, CO: Univ. Press of Colorado.

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    This festschrift includes several memoirs and reminiscences by Odum’s students and his wife, as well as articles illustrating how Odum’s earlier ideas have been applied and expanded by his followers. Also included is an informative “phylogenetic tree” of Odum’s intellectual descendants, listing his students and major collaborators.

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  • Hammond, Debora. 1997. Ecology and ideology in the general systems community. Environment and History 2:197–207.

    DOI: 10.3197/096734097779555926Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Hammond relies heavily on Peter Taylor’s characterization of H. T. Odum’s “technocratic optimism” in her comparative analysis of the systems theory of Kenneth Boulding and Odum (see Taylor 1988 under Ecosystem Concept).

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  • Odum, Eugene P. 1969. The strategy of ecosystem development. Science 164:262–270.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.164.3877.262Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article was based on Odum’s presidential address to the Ecological Society of America. The broad analogies that he drew between organisms and ecosystems (metabolism, development, homeostasis) made the paper highly controversial.

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  • Odum, Eugene P. 1985. Trends expected in stressed ecosystems. BioScience 35:419–422.

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    Odum based this contribution to a symposium on managing stressed ecosystems on the idea of ecosystem homoestasis. The article emphasizes the natural tendency for ecosystems to become more stable over time and the ways that environmental stresses can disrupt these trends.

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  • Odum, Eugene P. 1992. Great ideas in ecology for the 1990s. BioScience 42:542–545.

    DOI: 10.2307/1311885Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Odum identified twenty influential ecological concepts, of which ecosystem homeostasis was perhaps “the most important of all.”

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  • Odum, Howard T. 1983. Systems ecology: An introduction. New York: John Wiley.

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    The most detailed presentation of Odum’s ideas about energy, power, and the evolution of self-regulation in ecosystems. In a review in the Quarterly Review of Biology, the systems ecologist Kenneth Watt claimed that Odum’s book was “the closest thing to an all-encompassing, elaborate synthesis that ecology has yet produced” (p. 93).

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  • Odum, Howard T., and Richard C. Pinkerton. 1955. Time’s speed regulator: The optimum efficiency for maximum power output in physical and biological systems. American Scientist 43:331–343.

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    A seminal article for the development of Odum’s theoretical studies of energy relationships in ecosystems and the origin of his approaches to systems ecology. Odum and Pinkerton claimed that this maximum power output occurred when the efficiency of energy production was about half of what was theoretically possible.

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  • Patten, Bernard C., and Eugene P. Odum. 1981. The cybernetic nature of ecosystems. American Naturalist 118:886–895.

    DOI: 10.1086/283881Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Co-authored with a leading figure in mathematical systems theory, this article is the most explicit of Odum’s ideas about self-regulation and feedback in ecosystems. The article was part of an exchange between supporters and critics of the cybernetic ecosystem aired in the journal.

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Ecological Economics and Ecological Engineering

The Odum brothers were deeply committed to environmentalism, although their perspectives sometimes differed from other environmental activists who were critical of technological fixes. Both Eugene and H.T. presented ecologists as professional problem solvers who could use their expert knowledge of ecosystems to solve problems at the interface between science and society. This was an important theme in extensive chapters on applied ecology in Fundamentals of Ecology and in later popular books (Odum 1989). Beginning in the 1950s, H. T. Odum began to explore an interdisciplinary ecological economics (Kangas 2004). He later attempted to derive a set of energy terms that could be used to discuss energy transformations in systems that were both ecological and economic. Most notably, he used the idea of emergy (spelled with an m) or “embodied energy” to denote the quantity of energy of one kind required directly or indirectly to produce a service or product. At a more abstract level, his emergy analysis was a continuation of his earlier quest for a universal energy language. H. T. Odum also pioneered the interdisciplinary field of ecological engineering, another interest that he shared with Eugene (Mitsch 2003). Together with his students, H.T. explored the use of wetlands as natural purification systems for human waste. He designed a number of prototypes where partially treated waste was pumped into natural or artificial wetlands (Odum, et al. 1977).

  • Kangas, Patrick. 2004. Ecological economics began on the Texas bays during the 1950s. Ecological Modeling 178:179–181.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2003.12.018Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This short article by one of H. T. Odum’s students provides brief insights into Odum’s early interests in human impacts on marine ecosystems. Also studies the application of ecosystem theory to economic assessments of the services provided by ecosystems for human benefit as well as the often adverse affects of human activities on natural ecosystems.

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  • Mitsch, William J. 2003. Ecology, ecological engineering, and the Odum brothers. Ecological Engineering 20:331–338.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoleng.2003.09.001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Written by one of H. T. Odum’s students, this short article highlights the complementarity of the Odum brothers’ approaches to ecology, and their applications of ecosystem theory to the emergence of a new field of ecological engineering.

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  • Odum, Eugene P. 1989. Ecology and our endangered life-support systems. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

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    This book combined a broad overview of ecology with Odum’s thoughts on economics and politics. Notably, Odum expanded the economic idea of goods and services to non-monetary contributions of ecosystems to human welfare. A second edition was published in 1993.

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  • Odum, Howard T., Katherine C. Ewel, William J. Mitsch, and J. W. Ordway. 1977. Recycling treated sewage through cypress wetlands. In Wastewater renovation and reuse. Edited by Frank M. D’Itri. New York: Marcel Dekker, 35–67.

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    An early example of using natural ecosystems for human benefit. Odum argued that this type of partnership with nature was more sustainable than traditional technologies for wastewater treatment that required energy generated by fossil fuels.

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Teaching and Public Service

Both Eugene and Howard Odum were deeply committed to education and public service. Fundamentals of Ecology was the most influential textbook of ecology during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Designed for both students and professional ecologists, the book was frequently credited with shaping the career development of young ecologists (Barrett and Likens 2002, Barrett and Mabry 2002, Hagen 2008). It eventually went through five editions and was translated into twelve languages. Both of the Odum brothers trained large numbers of PhD students who actively extended and expanded the earlier approaches to ecosystem studies, systems ecology, and ecological engineering (Hall 1995 section on Systems Ecology). Later in their careers, both Odums wrote books on ecology and environmentalism that were aimed at broad, general audiences (Odum 1989, Odum and Odum 2001). Howard Odum and his wife, Elisabeth, were actively involved with promoting computer modeling and the educational uses of ecological models (Odum, et al. 1995; Odum and Peterson 1996; Odum and Odum 2000). Eugene Odum became an active spokesman for conservation and environmental legislation at the state and national level (see Barrett 2005, cited under Biographies). He was also a philanthropist who donated much of the wealth generated by his textbooks to educational and environmental causes. The Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands at the University of Florida and the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute continue the younger Odum’s legacy of promoting education, interdisciplinary research, environmental management, and public outreach (McClanahan 2002).

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