Interview with Lawrence Bliss, October 9, 2012

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Lawrence Bliss was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 1982-1983. He was a professor at Bowling Green State University from 1956-1957, at the University of Illinois from 1957-1968, at the University of Alberta from 1968-1978, and at the University of Washington from 1978-1998. In this interview, he talks about his education at Duke University, where he met his mentor, H.J Oosting, and began his career in ecology. He talks about his research of the arctic and alpine environments as well as his work for the International Biological Program studying the arctic biome.

Interview Notes

Bliss was born in Cleveland, Ohio. When his parents divorced, he lived with his mother who was a teacher. He grew up wanting to go to college with an interest in medicine, though he was not a top student.

At Kent State University, he started out in biology with a concentration in botany. Ralph Dexter was the animal ecologist who encouraged him to study with E. Lucy Braun, but she was about to retire.

He stayed at Kent State for his MS and he developed an interest in Duke. He and his wife, Gwen, were married by then, and he visited "Heine" Oosting at Duke. He applied there, but there was no financial support that year. However, Oosting found a "tobacco fellowship," a research assistantship and his wife found a teaching job. Bliss, though, didn't want to work on tobacco for his thesis.

During his work in the field, he began to wonder why some of the tobacco plants were wilting while others weren't. Further research over three years indicated that wilting depended on plant density. Other faculty encouraged his trial and error approach on this topic. 

Dwight Billings was headed to Wyoming to teach summer school and invited Larry to gain experience in the mountains. He already had some experience in Alaska while at Kent State, so he got the idea of comparing Arctic and Wyoming, working in the alpine. He spent two summers with Dwight.

During this time, Oosting wanted Larry to go to Emory University for his first job after his PhD. He liked North Caroline, but in the mid-1950s, he didn't want to stay in the south. So he applied to Bowling Green University and got a job on the faculty, but didn't like the department chair for various reasons.

Bliss was still working on his dissertation while at Bowling Green. Oosting said that Larry had to give him a manuscript for Ecological Monographs before a certain deadline. Oosting was the editor at the time and Larry met the deadline.

Bliss soon learned that Illinois was hiring. The job had been offered to Dwight Billings, who had just arrived at Duke and didn't accept. Oosting put in a good word for Larry and he got an interview. For his seminar, he opted to talk about his new research, not his dissertation which has been published. Dwight had asked Larry to write a research proposal for the alpine with Gwen as his field assistant. Dwight decided to be the senior author, even though he had asked Larry to write the proposal. Because of that, Larry decided to not interact with Dwight again on research, though he respected him as a scientist. This proposal, though, was the topic for his seminar at Illinois and he got the job in 1958.

Bliss got in the habit of getting his work published right away,  and he benefitted from that. John Cantlon at Michigan State was very supporting and published papers with Larry as a second author.

Ecology as a discipline

Bliss believed that one had to apply a variety of approaches to research, and enjoyed having grad students like Rich who were interested in a variety of topics and methods.

Most universities had merged botany and zoology departments, though not the University of Washington. Larry, a botanist, thought that mergers were a good idea.

Larry never interacted much with Eugene Odum and never used his book, but he appreciated what Odum accomplished.

International Biological Program – Arctic Biome

Bliss remembers people beginning to talk about ecosystem studies, and became a member of the U. S. National IBP Committee, while he was in Edmonton. He helped organize the U.S. portion of the IBP around the time he moved to Edmonton.

The Canadian program failed, and Larry was asked to organize a program for the Arctic, which he did. He took a variety of approaches, and he got other Canadian universities involved, through it was centered in Edmonton.

One of the participants insisted that the project had to be year-round, which would require special personalities that could overwinter together. Communication was difficult in those days, but they did it weekly. Six people (two couples, and two single men) were able to do it. No one had done it before research, aside from the indigenous peoples. (See interview with John Hobbie) During this research, they primarily monitored musk ox behavior in the dark on Devon Island. Arctic and alpine environments hadn't been worked on much before, which appealed to Larry; he liked working in places where others had not been before.

Development of ESA as an organization

Bliss mentions A.G. Vestal, a kind-hearted ESA secretary with few students who seemed rather isolated, and was at Illinois before Larry arrived. He mentions Victor Shelford, who was also st Illinois. Ecologists who were trained at the University of Chicago tended to come to Illinois-Champaign, Larry suggested. 

In the 1950s, Larry benefitted from watching his undergrad professors do research and publish papers. By the time he got to Duke, Larry knew that he would be an educator and researcher.

Ecologists at Illinois were aging, so Larry had to revive the program there. But in those days, they didn’t talk much about ESA. Most meetings of ESA were joint with AIBS, and other societies. When Larry became president, he decided that in two years he would “strike out in a new direction.” Twice ESA had tried to develop a “Washington Office,” but he wanted to try again. 

[Interview ended unexpectedly, possibly due to technical difficulties with the recorder, but the interview was nearing the end, Rich reported.]





Oral History Item Type Metadata


73 minutes


Lawrence Bliss and Richard Fonda, “Interview with Lawrence Bliss, October 9, 2012,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed September 21, 2023,