Interview with John Hobbie, August 13, 2014

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


John Hobbie was President of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) from 1984-1986. He was also a member of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). In this interview, Hobbie talks about his career studying bacteria in arctic lakes as well as his stable isotope studies of whale bones and caribou tissues for the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Interview notes

John Hobbie was a pre-med student at Dartmouth, which had an Arctic program. He spent a summer up there, camping out. Some of the Dartmouth faculty had Arctic projects and at the end of college, he took a trip to Greenland.

John went to grad school at UC Berkeley and he became involved with a study in Alaska. He went to Indiana to work with David Frey and during this time, he and his wife spent a full year in the Brooks Range. His research showed that the majority of aquatic productivity during the year took place under the ice.

David Frey was an excellent writer and the first editor of ASLO’s journal; his focus was more on zooplankton. He was a very nice person and was very interested in music, as was John, who took cello lessons at Indiana.

John did a post-doc in Sweden to study nanoplankton and worked at Upsalla. Dick Wright was another post-doc there at the same time. They did some isotope studies which identified the importance of bacteria. He and Wright did work much appreciated by oceanographers. He later worked with tritium.

John then moved to North Carolina State University to teach limnology. He published a paper on amino acid cycles in estuaries over an entire year. He developed another method in his pursuit of a functional approach, which was unusual in the 1960s.

IBP started and John took over the Barrow program. Fred Smith said that elemental cycling had to be included. Larry Tieszen, Pat Webber, and Walt Ochel were involved at Barrow with John; Larry Bliss was working in the Canadian Arctic. John developed another now widely cited method for counting bacteria.

Larry Brown was involved and the Arctic IBP work led to two books that John was involved with. Jerry Franklin and Tom Callahan were also at NSF at the time. IBP was very beneficial and it morphed into the LTER program.

Next, John moved to the MBL Ecosystem Science Center which George Woodwell was organizing. John did research on estuaries on Cape Cod, focusing on microbes. After IBP, the Alaskan Pipeline provided research opportunities in 1975. Their study area eventually became the Tulik Lake LTER site, and he and others have been going back there every year in the summer.

John became head of the institute after George Woodwell left. John kept his interest in the role of bacteria and microbial ecology, taking a functional approach, which he wishes more people would do. John describes some of the research that was done. John encouraged stable isotope studies in whale bones and caribou tissues. At the same time, his son was doing research at Glacier Bay and identified an important role for mushrooms, including ectomycorrhizal fungi, using N15. He describes the role of the mycorrhizal hyphae in extracting amino acids from organic matter at the Tulik site. Much of the N in the plant is taken up by the hyphae.

In the soil, the bacterial are functioning in a way that is very similar to the way they work in the ocean, though this is a controversial topic. Bacteria are much more numerous in the soil than in ocean water and he discusses this in some detail. It is difficult to work in the terrestrial system because sampling effect is so much more important than in the ocean.

John says nice things about his associates at MBL. He was head of the Ecosystem Research Center for 20 years, and then Jerry Mellilo took over.

How has ecology as a discipline changed over the years, other than what has already been said?

More chemistry, more quantitative with computers and stochastic models, more microbial work now, and more process oriented.

In the Arctic it’s relatively easy to do experiments, compared to the tropics, for example.

Development of ASLO and ESA

Both organizations have grown. John attended ASLO’s first meeting. ASLO had more focus on system dynamics at the time. Sometimes the two groups had joint meetings. He became president of ASLO at the same time as Paul Risser was president of ESA. ESA has an Aquatic Section but John now usually goes to the Microbial Section sessions.

Other topics

Over the years John’s striven to emphasize functionality, process, dynamics, and the role of bacteria. His career has been mostly in a private research laboratory, mostly with technicians and post-docs rather than graduate students.

Mellon Foundation grants have enabled MBL to have a summer course for students from all over the country during their junior year (students are mostly from small liberal arts colleges).





Oral History Item Type Metadata


62 minutes


John Hobbie and Dennis Knight, “Interview with John Hobbie, August 13, 2014,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed September 21, 2023,