Great lives in ecology and evolution

Over the past year, we’ve been highlighting on Twitter the lives of some key historical figures in the development of ecology, evolution and conservation. Here, we compile their mini-biographies in one place.
Published in Ecology & Evolution
Great lives in ecology and evolution

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The idea for compiling this list of figures in ecology and evolution began as I was pondering whether there might be any important anniversaries coming up in 2018. As a community, we’re already pretty good at celebrating historical figures like Darwin, Wallace, and Linnaeus-- but what about some of the less well-known names that have helped shape the field?

Science doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to recognising the contributions of under-represented groups, particularly women, so I was curious to learn more about some of the people who never made it into the textbooks.

Wikipedia seemed the obvious place to start, given that it now holds some 1.5 million biographies. The trouble is, we also know that more than 80% of these are about men like Darwin, Wallace, and Linneaus!

However, now thanks to the brilliant efforts of initiatives like the WikiProject Women Scientists, there is an ever-increasing wealth of biographical information available on hundreds, if not thousands of women scientists throughout history. And that’s where I started. By following a series of Wiki rabbit holes, this is the entirely non-systematic, haphazardly compiled list that ensued: a list of birthdays spread out over the year representing 55 different women and men from 16 countries, ranging from the 17th to the 20th Century.

I’ve restricted the list to only non-living scientists, and although these do include some well-known figures such as Mary Anning and Rachel Carson (OK and Linneaus too…), i’ve tried primarily to focus on names that might not be very familiar outside of specific fields.

One thing that struck me in particular was the absence of biographies from people outside Europe and the U.S. on Wikipedia. Indeed, the entries for some names were particularly sparse (e.g. Frederico Hoehne or Enrique Beltrán), or in some cases absent entirely (Harriet Bell Merrill), and often had to be supplemented with information from other sources.

Incredible lives

What I think I loved most about compiling this list was discovering that a number of these people were not only great scientists, but also led inspirational lives.

Among them were activists for causes such as the civil rights movement (Margaret Collins), gay rights (Miriam Rothschild) and women’s suffrage (Annie Lorraine Smith, Marian Farquharson, and Mary Agnes Chase – the latter of whom  was jailed twice for her campaigning, including once for burning copies of Presidential speeches outside the White House!).

Several also had their scientific lives interrupted by the Second World War: EC Pielou served in the British Navy, Mary Jane Rathbun in the Red Cross, Edith Saunders was an Allied volunteer, Miriam Rothschild worked at Bletchley Park as a codebreaker, and Ernest Everett Just was even imprisoned by the Nazis during their invasion of Paris.

And among these remarkable stories you can also find bizarre and extraordinary ones too, like the time that ornithologist Emilie Snethlage had to amputate her own finger when it became infected by a piranha bite. Or when entomologist Evelyn Cheesman was forced to cut herself out of a giant spider web using only a nail file. I also love that botanist Janaki Ammal once smuggled a palm squirrel from India into the UK to keep as a pet.

Even some of the more familiar figures have their surprises – who knew that Arthur Tansley once took time out of his botanical work to study with Sigmund Freud in Vienna? Or that Victorian palaeontologist William Buckland once set himself the goal of eating at least one specimen from the entire animal kingdom (which included a dish of stewed bluebottles)?

This is of course a very limited selection of the historical figures that have helped shape the disciplines of ecology and evolution that we know today, and so we’d love to be able to expand the list in future. So if there’s a historical figure out there who has particularly inspired you, let us know in the comments at the bottom of this post, and we’ll try to feature them next year.


Click on the links below to access a thread on our Twitter feed that explains more about each person’s life and legacy. Happy birthday everyone!


30th Jan G Evelyn Hutchinson (1903-1991) British ecologist who made substantial contributions to the development of modern ecological science, including the fields of limnology, systems ecology, and niche theory.

1st Feb Frederico Hoehne (1882-1959) Brazilian botanist who worked at the São Paulo Institute of Botany for more than 40 years, eventually becoming its Director.

4th Feb Thomas Risley Odhiambo (1931- 2003) Kenyan entomologist and founder of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology “to enable Africa to sustain herself and to lead the entire pan-tropical world in this area of endeavour”.

6th Feb Harriet Bell Merrill (1863-1915) US aquatic ecologist and first woman to hold an office in the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, being elected Vice President-Sciences in 1896.

6th Feb Mary Leakey (1913-1996) British paleoanthropologist who discovered the 3.2 million year old hominid footprints at Laetoli, and the fossils of hominin Zinjanthropus (later Paranthropus) bosei in Olduvai gorge (Tanzania).

7th Feb Karl Möbius (1825-1908) German zoologist often thought of as the founder of community ecology.

20th Feb Evelyn Chrystalla "E.C." Pielo (1924-2016) Pioneer of mathematical ecology, and the second woman to receive Ecological Society of America’s Eminent Ecologist award.

12th Mar William Buckland (1784-1856) British geologist, palaeontologist, and theologian who wrote the first scientific account of a fossil dinosaur -- which he named Megalosaurus.

17th Mar Cornelia Clapp (1849-1934) US marine biologist who earned both the first *and* second biology PhD’s awarded to women in the United States.

27th Mar Anna Weber-van Bosse (1852-1942) Dutch botanist specialising in marine algae, and the first woman to receive a PhD in the Netherlands.

29th Mar Charles Elton (1900-1991) Founding figure of modern ecology, most notably in the sub-disciplines population ecology, niche theory and invasion ecology .

1st April Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) Kenyan environmental activist and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also the first woman from East and Central Africa to earn a PhD.

2nd April Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) Pioneering scientific illustrator, naturalist, and explorer.

7th April Robert MacArthur (1930-1972) North American ecologist who had a profound influence on the development of modern ecology, especially in theoretical-, evolutionary-, and community ecology.

13th April Emilie Snethlage (1868-1969) German-born Brazilian ornithologist who was one of the first women to lead a scientific institution in Latin America.

17th April Irene Manton (1904-1988) British botanist specialising in ferns and algae, and first female President of the Linnean Society.

19th April E Lucy Braun (1899-1971) US botanist and ecologist, and first woman to be elected President of the Ecological Society of America.

26th April Enrique Beltrán Castillo (1903-1994) Pioneering Latin American conservationist and one of the first professional biologists in Mexico.

29th April Mary Agnes Chase (1869-1963) US botanist and women's rights campaigner.

5th May Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968) British archaeologist and first female professor at Oxbridge.

6th May Ann Haven Morgan (1882- 1966) US aquatic ecologist known for her exhaustive work on the taxonomy and biology of mayflies.

16th May Margaret Fountaine (1862-1940) British entomologist, illustrator and diarist, who was among the first female Fellows elected to the Royal Entomological Society and the Linnean Society.

21st May Mary Anning (1799-1847) British palaeontologist who discovered the first complete ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons.

23rd May Carl Linnaeus (1707-1788): Swedish botanist and zoologist, often called the father of modern taxonomy.

24th May Hu Xiansu (1894- 1968) Chinese botanist credited with founding modern plant taxonomy in China.

27th May Rachel Carson (1907-1964) US ecologist and writer, who led a global change in pesticide policy, and is credited with galvanising the modern environmental movement.

8th June Harriet Hemenway (1858-1960) U.S. socialite and pioneer in conservation activism who co-founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

11th June Mary Jane Rathbun (1860-1943) US marine zoologist specialising in crustaceans, and first female full-time Curator at the Smithsonian.

30th June Joan Murrell Owens (1933-2011) US marine biologist specialising in button corals, and one of the first African-American women to earn a doctorate in geology.

2nd July Marian Farquharson (1846-1912) British botanist specialising in ferns and mosses, and campaigner for women's rights.

6th July N Balakrishnan Nair (1927-2010) Indian marine ecologist and conservation campaigner

17th July: Cândido Firmino de Mello-Leitão (1886 -1948), Brazilian zoologist and taxonomist specialising in Arachnids, and former President of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

18th July Gilbert White (1720-1793) British naturalist and clergyman, whose book "The Natural History of Selborne" is considered a pioneering work in ecology and natural history.

5th Aug Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) British entomologist, parasitologist, World War II codebreaker, and campaigner for gay rights.

8th Aug Florence Merriam Bailey (1863-1948) US ornithologist, nature writer and activist, credited with creating the first modern field guide. She was also the first woman Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union.

14th Aug Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941) Pioneering African-American marine biologist specialising in embryology and development.

16th Aug Cynthia Longfield (1896-1991) Anglo-Irish entomologist affectionately known as "Madame Dragonfly" , and first female member of the Entomological Society of London.

20th Aug Roger Arliner Young (1899-1964) US marine biologist, and first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in zoology  and first to publish in the journal Science.

31st Aug Helen Battle (1903-1994) the first woman in Canada to earn a PhD in marine biology, and co-founder of the Canadian Society of Zoologists.

1st Sept Anna Botsford Comstock (1854-1930) US naturalist, illustrator and educator, and leading figure in the Nature Study movement, advocating outdoor learning.

4th Sept Margaret S Collins (1922-,1996) Pioneering US entomologist and civil rights activist, and one of the first African-American women to earn a PhD in zoology.

14th Sept Arthur Tansley (1871-1955) British botanist and leading figure in the development of modern ecology, who first introduced the concept of the "ecosystem".

24th Sept Jeanne Villepreux-Power (1794-1981) Pioneering French marine biologist who invented the aquarium.

30th Sept Helia Bravo Hollis (1901-2001) Mexican botanist who made major contributions to the conservation and taxonomy of cacti.

3rd Oct Ángeles Alvariño (1916-2005) Spanish marine biologist and oceanographer, and the first woman appointed as a scientist aboard a Spanish or British research ship.

8th Oct Evelyn Cheesman (1882-1969) British entomologist and explorer, and first female curator at London Zoo.

14th Oct Edith Rebecca Saunders (1865-1945) Pioneering botanist who was once dubbed the "Mother of British plant genetics".

23rd Oct Annie Lorraine Smith (1854-1937) British fungal biologist specialising in lichens, and first female president of the British Mycological Society.

30th Oct Olga Fedchenko (1845-1921) Russian botanist who catalogued the flora of Central Asia, and who was the second woman elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

4th Nov Janaki Ammal (1897-1984) Indian botanist who transformed agriculture in the country, and was one of the first women scientists to receive the Padma Shri, one of India's highest civilian awards.

26th Nov Ruth Patrick (1907-2013) Pioneering US freshwater ecologist, and first woman to be awarded the Eminent Ecologist award from the Ecological Society of America.

29th Nov John Ray (1627-1705) British naturalist and taxonomist, and first person to define ‘species’ as a biological term.

3rd Dec Octavia Hill (1838-1912) and Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) Two women born on different continents, but who would each independently transform how we view the relationship between the urban and the natural world. 

6th Dec Margaret Nice (1883-1974) US ornithologist renowned for her detailed studies of song sparrows, who revolutionised the fields of ethology, life history, and behaviour.


[*Sources of the images used in the title can be found in the links above. Portraits follow the chronological order of the list (top left – bottom right). ]

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Go to the profile of Gao Jianguo
over 5 years ago


Go to the profile of Gao Jianguo
over 5 years ago



His work:

2. Zhengyi Wu


About him: In Memory of Wu Zheng-Yi:

Go to the profile of Simon Harold
over 5 years ago

That's great -- thanks for the suggestions!