The Groundbreaking Research of Howard T. Odum

Robert L. Knight and David Kaplan

Florida’s springs and wetlands have long been known as places of natural beauty and cultural significance, but did you know that they have also played a pivotal role in the development of two new fields of science? Gainesville and the University of Florida hold a special place in the history of environmental science and environmental engineering, as UF was the first and last residence hall of the brilliant scientist Howard T. Odum.

After earning a Ph.D. in zoology from Yale in 1950, Odum chose to begin his academic career at UF. Born and raised in Chapel Hill, NC, “HT” had a passion for birds and the environment from an early age. Florida’s diverse and abundant wildlife, natural wetlands, and other exotic aquatic habitats appealed to his sense of adventure and curiosity, and it was there that he launched his 50-year quest knowledge about how the world works.

Unique among ecologists at the time, Odum believed it was essential to understand the role of humans in shaping our natural world. His first scientific achievement was a four-year study of Silver Springs, Florida’s largest and most visited spring.

Working with more than 20 collaborators, the Odum team has described and quantified all levels of the organization of nature – the flows of energy and materials – from the smallest algae, through the food web of wildlife, to the thousands of glass tourists. bottom boats and their effects on the springs. Published in 1957, Odum’s research on Silver River revolutionized the way scientists think about ecosystems; 65 years later, it is still the benchmark for ecosystem ecology.

Odum’s work at Silver Springs and Silver River became the foundation of systems ecology, an innovative new academic field seeking to understand the interactions between the natural and man-made worlds. Odum trained an international generation of “systems thinkers” to consider quantitative and qualitative understandings of the natural world, including people.

Silver Springs' glass bottom boats have been drawing tourists to Florida for decades.  Silver Springs is now a state park.

As early as 1962, Odum began to develop another new scientific idea, ecological engineering, combining ecology and engineering to integrate human society with its natural environment for their mutual benefit. With a tremendous ability to filter and slowly release flood waters, store carbon, cool the local environment, and provide unique habitats, wetlands are the iconic ecosystem of ecological engineering.

In the early 1970s, Odum pioneered research into the use of natural wetlands for wastewater treatment and recycling, pioneering groundbreaking research in the areas of restoration, creation and management wetlands that continue today.

Odum’s studies in Florida’s springs and wetlands have spawned two local scientific and educational organizations that bear his name. The Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands ( was established at UF in 1973. The High Springs-based Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute ( was founded in 2010 as an educational institution. non-profit. Both organizations pay tribute to the foresight of a brilliant scientist who anticipated the challenges of an expanding human population and energy consumption in a finite world.

Bob Knight, executive director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, poses in front of the North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs.

Odum recognized the telling rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels long before it made the news. He has seen the adverse effects of increased groundwater extractions on Florida’s springs, wetlands, and lakes. He conceptualized and demonstrated the potential for recycling society’s wastewater through treatment wetlands to help slow the rate of groundwater depletion and pollution that we continue to see today.

Perhaps Odum’s most significant contribution to understanding the interdependence between humans and nature was his last book, “A Prosperous Way Down”, co-authored with his wife, Elizabeth Odum. In this highly readable, non-academic book, the Odum have combined their knowledge of the inseparable relationship between man and nature to predict the decline of energy available from fossil fuels and to outline the choices society must make. between a calamitous accident or an accident more progressive and intentional decay.

At UF and Florida Springs Institute, we continue Odum’s legacy and invite you to learn more about Florida’s springs and wetlands. The institute offers a Springs Academy (see:

The Center for Wetlands organizes weekly “Water, Wetlands, and Watersheds” seminars every Wednesday (see: and

Dr. Robert L. Knight earned his Ph.D. in Systems Ecology under Dr. Odum in 1980, led the conceptualization and design of the Sweetwater Wetlands in Gainesville, and co-authored the “Treatment Wetlands” textbook with Dr. Robert Kadlec in 1996. Knight studied the Silver Springs Ecology for his Ph.D. degree and founded and currently directs the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, where he has published four books and dozens of reports focused on source ecology, restoration, and protection.

Dr. David Kaplan is an associate professor of environmental engineering sciences at UF and director of the UF Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands. His research focuses on the links between the hydrological cycle, ecosystem processes and human activities, with the aim of developing new scientific knowledge and engineering tools to advance the conservation and management of natural resources.

This column is part of The Sun’s Messages from the Springs Heartland series. More pieces from the series can be found at

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