Interview with Arthur Cooper, March 9, 2015

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Arthur Cooper was a professor at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 1980-1981. He was also the deputy director of the Department of Conservation and Development in North Carolina. In this interview, he discusses his role in creating the ESA’s Washington Office as well as his involvement with the Institute of Ecology.

Interview notes

Arthur Cooper was born in Washinton, D.C. and attended Colgate University, majoring in physical education and natural sciences. He stayed at Colgate for his M.S. degree in botany.

As a boy, his mother would take him on walks during the summer, pointing out flowers. His father was a geologist (expert on brachiopods), but they didn’t go on field trips together. At the age of 13, he spent a summer working with his dad at the Smithsonian. It was tedious work and he didn’t enjoy it.

He went to the University of Michigan for his Ph.D, to study with Pierre Dansereau, but he had just left. Stanley Cain became his adviser, though Stan was in the conservation program at Michigan.

Cain was very involved with conservation and political issues, locally and nationally, and he was a hands-off advisor. Art worked on life form composition in relation to microclimate. He describes where he worked. His dissertation was published, but it was very long. At the urging of Cain, he talked to Henry “Heine” Oosting at Duke about getting it published. Oosting said [paraphrased] about Art’s very thick dissertation, “We don’t let our students do that at Duke . . . We insist that students write for publication. Nobody knows that much about anything. Moreover, nobody wants to know that much about anything.”

Development as an ecologist

Art was interviewed at North Carolina State College and was offered a position in the Botany Department. He was the lone ecologist after B. W. Wells retired, and he could design an ecology program like he wanted it. He started a research program on the coasts, working initially on salt marshes. He also worked on coastal sand dunes.

Tom asked if B. W. Wells was helpful to Art. Art had been warned to be careful around Wells, as he could be opionated and had some non-conventional ideas. Art describes Wells’ personality. But Wells was a “shrewd” observer of the landscape, being right more than he was wrong, Art concluded.

Art soon became involved with conservation issues, starting with the preservation of an island just off the southern NC coast. He became the spokesman for the conservation community at the time and he was a familiar figure around North Carolina’s Department of Conservation and Development. More “D” than “C”, Art complained at the time. After a few years, Governor Scott offered him the job of deputy director of the Department of Conservation and Development, which he felt obliged to accept. He did that for about six years until 1976. He describes some of the work that he did in that role. Art is writing a booklet about his experiences “downtown” with state government.

After working for the state, Art returned to NCSU, this time in the Department of Forestry. Art decided that his role would be more in policy and administration than ecological research. Soon, the department head passed away and Art became the head, which he did for 15 years. Afterwards, Art taught courses for a short period and then retired from the university in 2001.

Art became the chair of a 7-member national committee that was established to “resolve” the USFS’s problems with implementing the 1976 National Forest Management Act, but he didn’t think the committee was successful.

Involvement in ESA

Art’s grandmother gave him a membership in ESA as a Christmas present around 1955. His first meeting was in 1959. Art’s first major involvement was when Lamont Cole asked him to be the botanical editor of Ecological Monographs, which he did. Dwight Billings had been doing it on an interim basis, but Dwight had not done much with those manuscripts he had received. The backlog created lots of work. The volunteer editors had much more to do in those days, including detailed editorial work, page set up, etc. He describes an instance of extensive plagiarism on a manuscript that had been submitted. Art continued as botanical editor for 4-5 years, and then Lee Miller and Alton Lindsey were hired and management of the journals became more professional with paid editors and staff. This was a major milestone in ESA’s publication office, in which Art played a role.

Development of ESA Washington Office

Other than the changes in the publication office described above, Art described the start of the Washington Office. ESA always took a hands-off approach to The Institute of Ecology, which is why TIE failed, Art thinks. Art was chair of the TIE committee that decided TIE could not continue. He was president of ESA, and gave his presidential address on the topic of “why no one listens to ecologists." But Art, Gene Likens, and Larry Bliss wanted a Washington presence, and so the Washington Office was established in 1982. Early years of the Washington Office were difficult, but he thinks of it now as one of ESA’s major accomplishments; Art feels good about his role in helping make it happen.

How has ecology changed over the years?

Science has become “vastly more quantitative.” He discusses this change. 

Subject matter has grown in scope quite dramatically, and is now more multi-disciplinary. When Art became a member in 1955, ESA was only 40 years old. In the 1950s, many did not know what ecology was; many scientists did not recognize it as a valid discipline.

To begin with, ecology was mostly academic. Some applied work began for various reasons; one was the need to learn about radioactive substances in the environment.

The Institute of Ecology (TIE)

See notes above. TIE failed, Art thinks, because the leadership of TIE was “captured” by activists (environmentalists), and the scientific part of the organization withered. Art, representing NCSU, was asked to be president of TIE, which he agreed to do with the understanding that he could close down the organization if he decided it was no longer viable. Jo Doherty (NSF) and Art were the ones who made sure all debts were settled at the end. They then wrote an article in the Bulletin on the history and closing down of TIE in about 1982. By that time, ESA was ready to “rightly” put its chips in the Washington Office, so Art was involved with the founding of the Washington Office.






Oral History Item Type Metadata


66 minutes


Arthur Cooper and Thomas Wentworth, “Interview with Arthur Cooper, March 9, 2015,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed September 21, 2023,