ECOVIEWS: Who is America’s best-known ecologist?
Many would declare that the best-known ecologist is E.O. Wilson, who celebrated his 85th birthday on June 10, 2014. He has taken many giant steps in a celebrated career that led to fame in the scientific world.
He coined the term and concept of biodiversity. And as a student he discovered the origin and identified the threat of the burgeoning scourge of fire ants, the insidious insect invader from South America. His academic journey took him from Alabama to Harvard.
Without knowing it, I first crossed the wake of Edward Osborne Wilson in 1955 when, as a high school student in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I met Professor Ralph Chermock. Ed Wilson (as he was called then) was already well on his way to becoming Dr. Chermock's most famous student at the University of Alabama, where he completed his bachelor's in 1949 and his master's a year later.
Wilson's classic original research and thesis on fire ants became a yardstick for what could be achieved at the predoctoral level. Later graduate students like myself who worked under the supervision of Dr. Chermock still take pride in noting that they had the same major professor as E.O. Wilson.
Sixty-four years after receiving his master's degree, E.O. Wilson is unquestionably the most famous biologist and arguably the most famous internationally known person to have ever graduated from the University of Alabama.
How do you go from being a nature-loving kid in Alabama to the most respected ecologist in America?
Tracking the career milestones of such a luminary is both easy and difficult – easy because there are so many notable achievements to choose from; difficult because deciding which ones to select is a humbling task.
How do you appropriately classify the world's top expert on ants who has also indisputably achieved the top tiers of excellence as an evolutionary biologist, sociobiologist, biogeographer, and philosopher of scientific ethics?
Awards are benchmarks that let us put a scientist in context with other scientists. E.O. Wilson's distinction becomes clear in the light of the many tributes to him for specific achievements, a body of work, or ideas and forward thinking.
Professor Wilson's more than 250 medals, prizes, and other accolades are numerous. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science by President Carter for contributions to the advancement of knowledge in biology.
He has received not one but two Pulitzer Prizes (On Human Nature, 1971; The Ants, with Bert Hölldobler, 1990). In 1990 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded him the Crafoord Prize, which is the world's most prestigious honor in the biological sciences with an emphasis on ecology.
Other awards presented to this extraordinary man have their own significance. When he was 13 in Mobile, Ala., he joined the Boy Scouts of America.
He was intrigued with the instructional opportunities for learning about nature through merit badges and other activities.
In 2004, at the age of 75, E.O. Wilson received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award. To even be considered a candidate one must have been recognized for service both to one's community and to one's profession for at least a quarter of a century after becoming an Eagle Scout.
Many state governors have received the award. Few scientists other than E.O. Wilson are ever likely to do so.
Among Wilson's strongest ties are those to his home state and to his alma mater, where he started his professional career as a field biologist fascinated with the biodiversity around him.
A fitting celebration of Earth Day in April 2014 was the Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Symposium held in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama.
E.O. Wilson's contributions to science and society cannot be overstated, and a full discussion of his writings and awards would be lengthy indeed. His honors are many, and his legacy is lasting. Ecology has had few champions that have made such a remarkable journey.
Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to email@example.com.