Interview with George Woodwell, May 20, 2015

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


George Woodwell is the founder of the Woods Hole Research Center and was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 1977 to 1978. In this interview, he talks about studying the effects of DDT at the University of Maine and the Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island. He also discusses the ESA’s role in policymaking and the Washington Office.

Interview notes

While spending part of his time on a small family farm in Maine, George became interested in the basis of human welfare. He went to Dartmouth, which at the time had a “college naturalist,” Doug Wade. He took an interest in students like him. George majored in “biology and the out of doors.” With Wade, he experienced bogs, peregrine falcons, and other things for the “pure joy of being outdoors.”

George joined the Navy after graduating from Dartmouth and describes his experiences mapping the mid-Atlantic ridge on an ocean survey vessel. He felt fortunate to have had that experience. 

Development as an ecologist

George applied to Duke and Harvard and was accepted to both schools. Duke offered him a “job” where he could study with Oosting and Billings. It was an excellent choice, he said, but he didn’t describe much about his time there.

Milestones in his career

After Duke, George joined the faculty at the University of Maine, where he encountered the spruce budworm, which was being controlled with DDT. He did a little research on DDT there. After three years, he went to Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island, and there too they were using DDT to control a mosquito. They found DDT residue in “organisms at every level.” He describes his research on DDT. Other options for mosquito control were available, such as ditching marshes. Eventually, DDT was abandoned there, for good reason, as other methods of mosquito control were possible. It was the beginning of conservation law pertaining to DDT.

George went to Brookhaven to set up research on the ecological effects of ionizing radiation, an early study on the effects of this kind of disturbance. He briefly describes some of that work.

George came to realize how important the ecological sciences were in the governmental sphere. Human effects on the biosphere became a theme for him and others. They focused on “ecosystem metabolism,” such as carbon fixation, disruptions in the carbon cycle, and the role of forests. That led to his work on the role of humans in affecting climate change. He explains that restored vegetation takes carbon out of the atmosphere.

He does not describe his move to MBL, nor his subsequent establishment of the Woods Hole Research Center, nor does he describe his role in establishing NGOs like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Fund.

How has ecology changed over the years?

Ecology has expanded enormously into new issues. He describes the research underway at Duke while he was there, including Billings, Mooney, and others, on species and communities, which George came to think of as part of the larger systems. Together the plants and animals built a worldwide system that, regrettably, humans are “driving into impoverishment.”

He says, "It's possible to contaminate the entire earth with one bomb.” This led to international appeals to restrict nuclear weapon testing. Atmospheric cycles and redistributions of all kinds of waste into the atmosphere were a new realm for ecology.

“Biology and Ecology have a set of rules which are absolutely inviolable in the sense that we can’t build systems that systematically contaminate air, water, and land, and still expect air, water, and land to support the life that evolved with a world of different chemistry. That’s just not going to work, so it’s time to backup, to back off from that, and decide that we have to honor the basic ecology of the earth.”

“The concept of the ecosystem has been built into a concept of the biosphere, all within our own time.”

Rules are needed to protect Earth, so that Earth “has the potential to support dense populations of people.”

"We didn’t even realize how serious those issues of contamination are.”

Corporate interests now realize, informally if not outright, that they are diminishing the Earth. He describes examples. The fossil fuel industry is no longer helping human welfare and government regulations are necessary.

Development of ESA Washington Office

ESA and ecology changed from being largely taxonomic and descriptive to global, and all that has to do with the long-term welfare of people, clean air, and water, which was a fundamental responsibility of government. Ecologists are now defining what is necessary to sustain the biosphere. Chemical disruption is a serious matter that has to be attended to by the government. There are no challenges to the purpose of government. Corporate or military interests are different, often at odds, and this has changed a lot in his time.

“I’m not at all bashful in saying that the responsibilities of ecologists have exploded and that we as ecologists/scientists who don’t accept those responsibilities are delinquent and are certainly not living up to the potential of our time.” ESA began to recognize this in the 1970s.

George tried to help give ESA a better administrative focus, which led eventually to the Washington Office.

New institutes dedicated to ecology and ecosystems were developed “here and there.” Some succeeded and some, like TIE, failed for various reasons. 

“We have much to be proud of and much further to go.”






Oral History Item Type Metadata


27 minutes


George Woodwell and Richard Houghton, “Interview with George Woodwell, May 20, 2015,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed February 26, 2024,