In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Robert H. Whittaker

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • International Efforts
  • Natural History Studies
  • Conservation and Environmental Problems
  • Social Commentary
  • Whittaker as Writer
  • Students
  • Legacy

Ecology Robert H. Whittaker
Thomas R. Wentworth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0113


Robert Harding Whittaker (b. 1920–d. 1980) was one of the foremost international scholars of ecology and evolutionary biology of the 20th century. Born on 27 December 1920, Whittaker spent his youth in Kansas, obtaining a BA degree in biology in 1942 from Washburn Municipal University in Topeka. He then enlisted in the Army Air Force, serving during the Second World War as a meteorologist in England. In 1946 Whittaker began doctoral work in ecology at the University of Illinois, co-advised by zoologist S. Charles Kendeigh and botanist Arthur G. Vestal. After completing his PhD degree in 1948, Whittaker spent the next two decades at two National Laboratories (Hanford and Brookhaven) and three academic institutions (Washington State College [now University] in Pullman, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, and the University of California, Irvine). In 1953, Whittaker married Clara Buehl, whom he had met at the Hanford Laboratories; they had three children: John, Paul, and Carl. In 1968, Whittaker began his fourth academic position as professor in the Section of Ecology and Systematics at Cornell University, where he worked until his death. At Cornell, he expanded the diversity of his research endeavors while maintaining his focus on plant community ecology. Whittaker authored or co-authored approximately seven publications per year during his Cornell years, most of these in highly prestigious journals. He also expanded his already well-established international reputation and collaborations, hosting numerous visiting scholars. The Ecological Society of America (ESA) in 1966 awarded Whittaker and William A. Niering its prestigious Mercer Award for the outstanding ecological paper published in the previous two years. Other ESA recognitions included election as vice president in 1971 and presentation of its highest award, Eminent Ecologist, in 1980. Whittaker was elected in 1974 to the US National Academy of Sciences. At the peak of his career, Whittaker also experienced personal tragedy; his wife Clara was diagnosed with cancer in 1974 and died in 1977. In 1979, Whittaker married one of his doctoral students, Linda Olsvig. In early 1980, Whittaker was diagnosed with cancer and succumbed on 20 October 1980. Whittaker played a leadership role in some of the most fundamental developments in ecology of the 20th century. His principal contributions were in plant community ecology, including major advances in gradient analysis, classification of natural communities, ordination and numerical classification, understanding of species diversity, interpretation of succession and climax, and study of small-scale community patterns. His premature death in 1980 deprived the world of science of one of its great scholars. Note: This bibliography draws ideas and information from the definitive biography of Robert Whittaker published in 1982 by Walter E. Westman and Robert K. Peet, to whom I am deeply indebted (cited under Biographies).


The works in this section constitute the major biographic treatments of the life and work of Robert Whittaker. Walter E. Westman and Robert K. Peet, two of Robert Whittaker’s doctoral students, wrote the definitive biography of Whittaker, Westman and Peet 1982, shortly after his death. This article, edited by Eddy van der Maarel, was subsequently reprinted in van der Maarel 1985 as part of a collection of twenty-one previously published papers written in Whittaker’s honor. Peet 1985 is an introduction to van der Maarel 1985, which serves as a synopsis of Whittaker’s most important scholarly contributions. A subsequent publication in the Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences (Westman, et al. 1990) drew heavily on Westman and Peet 1982.

  • Peet, R. K. 1985. Introduction. In Plant community ecology: Papers in honor of Robert H. Whittaker. Edited by Eddy van der Maarel, 1–4. Advances in Vegetation Science 7. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Junk.

    A concise introduction to Whittaker’s major research themes: methods of community analysis, analysis of gradients, community dynamics, and species diversity.

  • van der Maarel, E., ed. 1985. Plant community ecology: Papers in honor of Robert H. Whittaker. Advances in Vegetation Science 7. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Junk.

    Papers written by Whittaker’s colleagues and students to illustrate applications of approaches developed by Whittaker and to illustrate current research that had developed as a direct result of Whittaker’s stimulus in a variety of fields.

  • Westman, W. E., and R. K. Peet. 1982. Robert H. Whittaker (1920–1980): The man and his work. Vegetatio 48.2: 97–122.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00726879

    The definitive biography of Robert H. Whittaker. Contains a complete bibliography of Whittaker’s published work and a listing of doctoral dissertations he directed. Later reprinted in van der Maarel 1985. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Westman, W. E., R. K. Peet, and G. E. Likens. 1990. Robert H. Whittaker. In Biographical Memoirs. Vol. 59. Edited by the National Academy of Sciences, 424–445. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    A biography of Robert H. Whittaker based largely on Westman and Peet 1982.

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