Some Commentary on Distinguished Ecologists

Published as: Of Interest to Ecologists

Presented by Robert Burgess at the Annual ESA Banquet, Pennsylvania State University, 10 August 1982.

The Ecological Society of America is honored tonight by the presence of so many Eminent Ecologists and Past Presidents. And I am honored to be asked to say a few words, aimed perhaps more toward these people as individuals than toward their careers as scientists. So often, it seems, our knowledge of people who have shaped our discipline and led our Society is based on our own individual forms of private citation analysis, rather than on the far more fascinating personal attributes of the people. So frequently we forget the founding fathers, George Woodwell’s “old boys of the subversive science,” because of the passage of time, the spread of distance, the seeming obsolescence of their papers, or simply from lack of attention or interest. Yet the legacy of Victor Shelford, Henry Chandler Cowles, Forrest Shreve, Barrington Moore, and many others lives on in the continuity of our journals, the health of our Society, and our concern for environmental quality in the face of advancing technology and burgeoning population.

We honor tonight both Past Presidents and our Eminent Ecologists, still distinct categories although they may merge with time. When first established, criteria for Eminent Ecologist precluded ESA presidents. It was almost a choice—do you want to be president, or perhaps later an Eminent Ecologist? Fortunately, I think, with the naming of William Skinner Cooper in 1963, the tradition expired.

For our first 25 years, up to 1940, all of our presidents were born in the 19th century. With the election of Orlando Park, we had our first president born in this century. He was also our youngest president, serving when he was only 41. More recently, Bob Paine became the first ESA leader younger than I am, a dubious distinction now shared by our current president, Gene Likens. Stephen Alfred Forbes was our oldest, elected in 1920 at age 76. But of course, age is not necessarily a damper on activity. Last year, Alfred Clarence Redfield published a book on tidal action from his bed in Woods Hole, at the age of 90. Paul Bigelow Sears, also at 90, had a long, articulate letter on “Fossil Maize Pollen in Mexico” in the 28 May issue of Science.

I recall hosting Sears during his 1969 Sigma Xi lecture tour in the northern states. When I picked him up at the airport, accompanied by Warren Whitman, my chairman at North Dakota State, Paul asked me, “where did we first meet?” I reminded him that he had interrupted my first professional paper with a question at the Chicago AAAS meetings 10 years before. From the back seat of the car, Warren then asked if he recalled their first encounter at Botanical Society meetings in Richmond, Virginia in 1939. After some memory jogging, Sears remembered. Arriving at the University, I introduced Paul to Orin Alva Stevens, then in his mid-80s, and an ESA member since 1918. Stevens said that he and Sears had sat next to each other at the ESA banquet in Chicago in 1919. Sears said, “My God, what did we talk about?” Stevens said, “You were writing your thesis and we talked about that.” And Paul said, “I remember.” Later, as we talked, Paul indicated both his excitement and his pleasure at being taken back through 50 years of personal history by three men in Fargo.

But I digress. Ira Wiggins tells of Forrest Shreve spending a lifetime on the sands and lavas of the Sonoran Desert—in high button shoes. Others tell of never seeing Frederic Clements, in office, lab, or field, without the characteristic high, rounded collar and tie.

ESA has had only one female Eminent Ecologist. Ruth Patrick, here with us tonight, showed me some of her diatom work at Devon, Pennsylvania in the middle 1960s. More recently, I was impressed with John Cairns’ laser-instigated, computerized diatom identification system at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. This is somewhat analogous to the technological span between hot air balloons and placing men on the moon.

Emma Lucy Braun, our only woman president, 32 years ago, had covered much of the eastern deciduous forest region on muleback. Later in life, she was asked by Hugh Iltis to pose in front of a giant tulip poplar in a cove forest in the Great Smokies. As he snapped the shutter, she remarked, “Be sure to tell your students which one is the Tertiary relic.”

In 1925, Stanley Cain took air photos of vegetation for mapping purposes from a 20 World War I biplane with a camera held with a lap strap, a method that Paul Sears had pioneered in Florida in 1918. Little did they know then that aerial photography and now satellite imagery would play a major role in our science.

Gene Odum is here, pioneer in functional ecology. I remember how impressed I was to flip through a Polish edition of “Fundamentals of Ecology” while in Warsaw a number of years ago. Cornelius Muller is here, a grand old gentleman, making sense out of California vegetation dynamics long before allelopathy became a needed term in our jargon. AI Lindsey is here, first with Admiral Byrd in Little America, later our first managing editor, quiet, un assuming, erudite—my friend. Charles Kendeigh is here, carrying on in the Shelford tradition, having outlived his illustrious student, the late Robert Harding Whittaker. And Rexford Daubenmire is here, author of three major textbooks, coming from that exceptional group with Cooper at Minnesota in the 1930s, a group that included Murray Buell, Helen Foote Buell (here tonight), Heinie Oosting, Frank Egler, and Bob Humphrey.

As a graduate student with Curtis at Madison, my contact with Art Hasler was minimal, but I fondly recall those occasions when some of his perspective and knowledge rubbed off. Ed Deevey is here, Past President and 1982 Eminent Ecologist, who after defending mud, once pointed out that because the Gross National Product was an index that included all goods and services, even medical ones, that the higher the GNP, the sicker the population. Herb Bormann is here, moving from the statistics of plot size and shape to major ecosystem syntheses at Hubbard Brook. Forest Stearns is here, editor, indefatigable urban ecologist, AIBS President, who with his wife, Ruth, have offered a second home to many wayward ecologists.

Frank Golley is here, master scientist, exquisite administrator; George Woodwell is here, whether at Brookhaven or Woods Hole, ardent spokesman for environmental quality and ecological sanity; Dwight Billings, equally at home in desert or tundra, and Art Cooper, orchestrating a career between academic science and government service, are here, immigrants both to North Carolina, exemplifying the blend, so characteristic of ecologists, of good science and marvelous personality; good friends, all.

There are many, of course, that are not here. Walter Cottam, aged and ailing in Utah, at 88. Thomas Park, still active in Chicago. We miss the erudition and insight of G. Evelyn Hutchinson, equally at home with art, philosophy, and science. This past year we lost Walter Byron McDougall, our last surviving charter member, who was still working every day at 96 and scaring hell out of his coworkers by driving to work. We miss the potential of Bob MacArthur, Don Tinkle, and Bob Whittaker, but are thankful for the continued activity of Frank Blair, John Reed, John Cantlon, Fred Smith, Bob Platt, and the others. All have played major roles in our Society, and it is altogether fitting and proper, that on this occasion we show our individual and collective appreciation for their efforts.

Robert L. Burgess
Department of Environmental and Forest Biology,
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry,
Syracuse, New York 13210 USA

Citation: Of Interest to Ecologists
Robert L. Burgess and Norman C. Ellstrand
Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America , Vol. 64, No. 1 (Mar., 1983) , pp. 17-22, 24-27
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