Campus News

Ecology school celebrates 100th birthday of its late founder

The life and work of Eugene P. Odum, who has been called “the father of modern ecology,” was commemorated Sept. 17 at UGA in the ecology building.

The event celebrated what would have been the 100th birthday of Odum, a UGA professor who founded what would later become the Odum School of Ecology.

Before cake and ice cream were served, those who knew Odum and those who benefited from his work talked about the accomplishments of the noted scientist.

Odum, who died in 2002, wrote the first ecology textbook and gave traction to a new way of looking at ecology.

“He was a pioneer,” said John Gittleman, dean of the School of Ecology. “He was a visionary who developed an idea that was way ahead of its time: the ecosystem.”

Odum emphasized studying ecology through a holistic lens or, as he put it, realizing that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Betty Jean Craige, a professor emeritus in comparative literature and former director of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, also spoke about Odum. Craige, who wrote the biography Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist, talked about Odum’s storied history at UGA, which began when he joined the faculty in the 1940s.

In addition to discussing his scientific accomplishments, Craige also said that Odum was an environmentalist who believed humans needed to adapt to halt the degradation of Earth’s ecosystem.

She said, “Gene argued, if we humans are to solve environmental issues, we must change our behavior; if we humans are to solve social issues, we must change our behavior; if we humans are to solve any of the problems that threaten our health and well-being, we must change our behavior.”

A panel discussion moderated by ecology graduate student Carly Phillips covered other aspects of Odum’s life and work.

Alex Patterson, a retired attorney who grew up with Odum’s son Bill, talked about the ecologist’s strengths as a father.

David Coleman, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus for the ecology school, discussed Odum’s engagement in politics to promote the protection of ecosystems.

Nina Wurzburger, an assistant ecology professor who never met Odum, talked about his impact on the field of ecology.

“One important lesson we can learn from Odum is to address problems by assembling interdisciplinary teams,” Wurzburger said.

Speakers at the event said Odum would have gotten along well with attendees­­-a combination of ecology students, faculty and staff as well Odum’s friends-who were there because of a passion for science and nature. 

Craige said, “(Odum) believed that if people understood the ways of nature, then they would be better stewards of nature.”