Odum, Howard T. (Howard Thomas), 1924-2002

Alternative names
Birth 1924-09-01
Death 2002-09-11

Biographical notes:

Howard Thomas Odum was born September 1, 1924 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father, Howard Washington Odum, worked as a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1943-1946, studying meteorology in Puerto Rico and serving as an instructor at the Air Force Tropical Weather School in Panama. He earned an A.B. degree in zoology from North Carolina in 1947, and a Ph.D. from Yale in 1951. Although his degree was in zoology, his dissertation focused on the biogeochemistry of strontium.

From 1950 to 1954 he taught limnology and biology at the University of Florida and conducted research on springs and estuaries. He initiated microcosm studies while employed at Duke University in 1954, and he served as Director of the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Texas from 1956 to 1963. From 1963 to 1966 he worked as Chief Scientist at the Puerto Rico Nuclear Center, which was operated by the University of Puerto Rico for the Atomic Energy Commission. While there, he initiated large scale environmental experiments on irradiation of rainforests in the Luquillo Mountains. From 1966 to 1970 he served at the University of North Carolina as a professor in zoology, botany and environmental sciences and engineering.

In 1970, Odum returned to the University of Florida as a professor in engineering. He founded the Center for Wetlands in 1973 with grants from the Rockefeller and National Science Foundations. He spent the rest of his career at UF, serving as a Graduate Research Professor in Environmental Engineering Sciences, Director of the Center for Wetlands from 1973 to 1991, and also as Director of the Center for Environmental Policy, which he founded in 1991. The Center for Wetlands was later named the Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands in his honor.

Odum was a pioneer in the fields of systems ecology and energy analysis, and was instrumental in the development of ecological science, ecological economics, and ecological engineering. Related research and teaching specialties included experimental microcosms, biogeochemistry, environmental valuation and policy and systems modeling. Much of Odum's research focused on understanding the way flows of energy develop maximum power and order in ecosystems, and the common similarities among all systems. He was particularly interested in the similarities in patterns of energy flow and behavior in ecosystems, economic systems and social systems.

Throughout his career, Odum focused on the experimental and theoretical study of ecosystems and larger environmental areas, making controlled experiments of whole ecosystems, developing experimental microcosms, and creating systems models and computer simulations. He analyzed energy flows in numerous ecological systems including streams, rivers, coral reefs, lagoons, springs, mangroves, salt marshes, rain forests, and agricultural systems.

In the 1960s and 1970s he developed a language of symbols used for representing concepts about energy systems in network diagrams, which could be translated into mathematical equations for simulation. Over the next four decades, he used the energy symbol language to illustrate the structure and function of systems, and also to identify similarities between different systems. He created computer simulation models that allowed him to investigate a variety of topics including world fuel shortages, inflation, net power, international competition, societal history, world population, and resource use.

Odum was responsible for formulating and developing numerous ecology and energy concepts and principles. He developed the "maximum power" principle, focusing on the efficiencies of energy intake, transformation, and production in systems. His "net energy" theory stated that a society must not expend more energy during the production of energy than the total energy produced. In 1983 he and colleagues, including Mark T. Brown, coined the term "emergy" (spelled with an "m") to discuss quantitative evaluations of embodied energy concepts for public policy.

Odum was a prolific author with hundreds of journal articles, papers and other publications. His books include: A Tropical Rainforest, A Study of Irradiation and Ecology at El Verde, Puerto Rico (1970; with R.F. Pigeon); Environment, Power and Society (1971); Energy Basis for Man and Nature (1978, 1982; with Elisabeth C. Odum); Systems Ecology: An Introduction (1983); Cypress Swamps (1985; with K.C. Ewel); Ecological Microcosms (1993l; with R.J. Beyers); Ecological and General Systems: An Introduction to Systems Ecology (1994); Maximum Power: The Ideas and Applications of H.T. Odum (1995); Environmental Accounting: Emergy and Decision Making (1996); Environment and Society in Florida (1998; with Elisabeth C. Odum and Mark T. Brown); Biosphere 2: Research Past and Present (1999; with B.D.V. Marino); Modeling for All Scales: An Introduction to System Simulation (2000; with Elisabeth C. Odum); Heavy Metals in the Environment, Using Wetlands for Their Removal (2000); A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies (2001; with Elisabeth C. Odum); and, Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-first Century: The Hierarchy of Energy (2007).

Odum received numerous awards and honors throughout his career. He was an elected member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, he received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Ohio State University, and he received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Institute for Biological Sciences. In 1975 he and his brother, University of Georgia ecology professor Eugene Odum, were awarded the international prize for outstanding research from the Institute de la Vie in Paris. In 1987 the brothers were awarded the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.

Odum was married to Virginia W. Odum, but was widowed in 1972. They had two daughters together. In 1973, he married Elisabeth Chase Odum. Elisabeth C. Odum is professor emerita at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. She taught energy and ecology and was co-author of numerous books and articles with H.T. Odum.

From the guide to the Howard T. Odum Papers, 1935-2003, (Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida)


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Ark ID:


  • Environmental management
  • Environmental policy
  • Environmental impact analysis
  • Ecology--Simulation methods
  • Energy consumption--Environmental aspects
  • Power resources
  • Wetland ecology
  • Ecosystem management
  • System analysis


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