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Happy Ada Lovelace Day! Honoring Dr. Evelyn Chrystalla Pielou

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, which is devoted to “sharing stories of women — whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians — who have inspired you to become who you are today.” I would definitely be remiss if I didn’t mention Dr. Evelyn Chrystalla Pielou, more often known as “E. C. Pielou,” one of the founders of mathematical ecology.

My first encounter with Dr. Pielou came when I was an undergraduate, when my advisor told me that as a grad student, he was struggling through one of her extremely complicated mathematical ecology textbooks, which had been assigned for the class, and went to the smartest student he could think of for help. When this student was also stumped, the two visited the instructor, explaining they were having a difficult time with the material, and were surprised to find him laughing. “Oh, John,” his professor said. “No one understands Pielou! But someday your graduate students will be incredibly impressed to see the book on your shelf!” We were discussing MacArthur’s warbler paper, and the fact that Dr. Pielou had written a letter in response showing why MacArthur’s math was incorrect. In response, MacArthur wrote this scathingly dismissive response to “Mrs. Pielou’s comment,” in which he hoped that “these comments do not draw additional attention to what is now an obsolete approach to community ecology,” (referring, as Brian McGill points out in the comments, to his broken stick model) and that “to avoid future wastes of time,” he noted another mathematical error in an additional paper.

From Dr. Pielou’s book After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Deglaciated North America

My advisor told me the anecdote about Pielou as he handed me a tattered copy of Pielou’s After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Deglaciated North America. I was just discovering my love of the all things Pleistocene, and was clamoring for things to read and think about. Seeing my skeptical look, he explained that, while Pielou was too brilliant for many a graduate student brain to wrap their head around mathematical ecology, in her retirement she had taken to writing an incredible array of very accessible, delightful books for a popular audience. Many, including After the Ice Age and The Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic, have her own sketches as the illustrations. I have spoken to several people who read Fresh Water at an impressionable point in their career and found it changed their life. Her most recent book, The Energy of Nature, came out in 2007. In her retirement (in her eighties!), Dr. Pielou has been on a number of Arctic expeditions, often as a scientific advisor for ecotourism trips.

I’m definitely beholden to Dr. Pielou for After the Ice Age, which I continue to enjoy and often give to new undergraduate students as an introduction to Quaternary studies. It’s impressive that such an eminent quantitative ecologist was later able to write so many important and readable books in her retirement. However, as I delved more deeply into her background (check out this article on women in ecology), I discovered that she has an impressive history, as well. Her initial study in mathematical ecology was completely self-taught as an amateur, as she worked from home as a wife and mother. In the complete absence of a committee or a dissertation advisor, she converted several papers into a PhD thesis, and was awarded a doctorate from the University of London. This was all during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s!  After a couple of years as a research scientist for the Canadian government, Dr. Pielou was hired as a full professor at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, and then at University of Lethbridge, Alberta (and later held guest appointments at a number of institutions, including the Yale School of Forestry). Throughout her career, she tackled problems in community ecology and biogeography, often with an eye to the palerorecord, bringing new mathematical rigor to quantifications of community structure, population dynamics, and later biogeographic range analyses. The Ecological Society of America has a Statistical Ecology section graduate student award named in her honor.

While most of ecology has a fairly good gender balance compared to many sciences today, mathematical ecology continues to be heavily male-dominated. While it was her later work as a writer and naturalist that first sparked my appreciation, as a graduate student and then postdoc I continually stumble upon references to her papers in ecology, eco-statistics, and biogeography articles. Dr. Pielou’s career is remarkable for a number of reasons, and she deserves to be held alongside “Mr. MacArthur” and other eminent ecologists. Happy Ada Lovelace Day, Dr. Pielou!

P.S. Are you a Pielou fan, too? Honor her, or another woman in STEM, with an Ada Lovelace Day contribution to one of the Donors Choose science classrooms I’m supporting for the Science Bloggers for Students Challenge!

Categories: Women in Science

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Jacquelyn Gill

8 replies

  1. Great post. I have tracked down used copies of all of her research books and refer to them frequently. EC Pielou was ahead of her time. She was the mathematician/theoretician for macroecology before macroecology existed. Her math was always very elegant and clearly explained (although admittedly very terse – she assumed you knew your math).

    I took MacArthur’s 1966 comment differently though – namely that he was dismissing his own previous broken stick model which by then had already been shown empirically not to work very well.

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