Interview with Jean Langenheim, August 12, 2014

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Jean Langenheim was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 1986-1987. She wrote an autobiography, The Odyssey of a Woman Field Scientist: A Story of Passion, Persistence, and Patience, and was a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In this interview, she talks about the struggles of being a female scientist and about her studies of amber producing trees.

Interview Notes

Langenheim grew up in Tulsa, OK near the Osage Indian Reservation and would go there on walks. She drew plants which led to an interest in photography, and she was interested in geology. High schools had excellent instruction in geology, so she gravitated toward that subject. She grew up during the WWII period and became a thrifty person. Her mother hoped that she would go to a women’s college in the East, but she went to University of Tulsa instead. However, she couldn’t major in geology there because she had to take a summer field course, and women were not allowed in that course.

Hariett Barkley at UT urged her to study under Cooper at Minnesota, and she was accepted there for an M.S. degree. She describes the departmental restrictions against PhDs for women. She met her future husband, a geologist in Colorado, and Cooper liked the idea of Jean working with her geologist husband, which would enable her to blend botany and geology and enable an exception to be made to the rule about admitting women in the Ph.D. program. Hariett Barkley got her Ph.D. at Chicago, which had no restrictions on women in Ph.D. programs, and Hariett worked with Cowles. Jean interacted with paleobotanists at Minnesota.

Cooper urged Jean to join ESA as a grad student, which she did. She was at Minnesota from 1946-51; Cooper retired in 1951.

Berkeley Period

Jean's husband got a job at UC-Berkeley, and she went along. Lincoln Constance and Herbert Mason decided that she should be a research associate in the Botany Department there, which was an exciting time in the development of plant population biology. She worked with Mason, and Cooper was happy with this opportunity for her. With them she developed an interest in the relationship between ecology and evolution.

Her husband didn’t get tenure at Berkeley and moved to University of Illinois-Urbana. Larry Bliss was there and he found a place for Jean in his lab. There was a strong group in paleobotany at Illinois. Her interest in amber had begun in Berkeley and was developed further at Illinois, so her husband and she went on a trip to Mexico where the Indians in Chiapas were burning amber as incense. Hymenea was one of the trees that produced resins (amber). She became convinced that there should be more research in the tropics. She was divorced at about that time.

Harvard Period

Barghoorn, a paleobotanist, invited her to Harvard, and the Radcliff Institute was providing support for women scientists. Kenneth Thimann, also at Harvard at the time, advised the Radcliff Institute but soon left for UC-Santa Cruz to help develop a new university, and encouraged Jean to apply there. She interacted with E. O. Wilson while at Harvard. For a while Harvard was heavily involved with Cuba, using it as a place for undergraduate courses until Castro took over.

UC-Santa Cruz Period

Jean was hired to teach at UC-Santa Cruz in 1966. She appreciates the support of her mentors and others who helped her as a women and scientist, where she pursued her career in evolution and ecology, tropical ecology, chemical ecology, and doing her work on resins.

Association for Tropical Biology and Organization for Tropical Studies

Jean was in the first class of students that went to Costa Rica for an OTS course. These organizations developed while she was at Harvard.

ESA over they years

Journals were most important to her initially; she attended meetings after going to UCSC with her students. She held major offices in several organizations. She observed ESA growing in size and a volunteer spirit was needed initially. Responsibilities of officers have changed, with more help from staff. Much of the work now is done by staff and several vice presidents. She watched and debated the development of the Public Affairs Office. Ecology has become more complex and includes more interaction with the public and the media. The profession has become much more quantitative, and teamwork became more important.

Jean’s success depended on learning chemistry, which she did more or less as needed in the lab, largely at Harvard, working with collaborators. She worked with Eugene Zavarin, a chemist in the USFS Forest Products Lab and at UCSC, who was working with pine resin. He was on the committees of Jean’s students.

Issues with ESA

She appreciates new emphasis on diversity in the profession which goes well beyond gender. Minorities have not been traditionally strong in ecology. Also, the rapidity at which human impacts are accelerating is difficult to deal with for ecologists. And the interaction of ESA with other professional societies is good. There are more options for attending meetings.

Mentoring students

Her approach was influenced by Cooper: Be open-minded, allow them to develop their own interests, and encourage them to think independently. And learn to work with other disciplines.






Oral History Item Type Metadata


64 minutes


Jean Langenheim and Dennis Knight, “Interview with Jean Langenheim, August 12, 2014,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed September 21, 2023,