From Alabama to Harvard and Back: The Story of E. O. Wilson

Guest post by Whit Gibbons

How do you go from being a nature-loving kid in Alabama to the most respected biologist in America? Here’s one story of E. O. Wilson’s remarkable journey as we celebrate his 85th birthday on June 10, 2014.

EOWilsonWithout knowing it, I first crossed the wake of Edward Osborne Wilson in 1955 when, as a high school student in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I met Prof. Ralph Chermock. E. O. Wilson, known as Ed at that time, was already well on his way to becoming Dr. Chermock’s most famous student at the University of Alabama, where he completed his bachelor’s in 1949 and his master’s a year later. Wilson’s thesis, based on his classic original research on invasive fire ants, became the yardstick for what could be achieved at the predoctoral level. Later graduate students who worked under the supervision of Dr. Chermock still take pride in noting that they had the same major professor as E. O. Wilson. Wilson’s awesome summing up of the burgeoning scourge of the insidious insect invader from South America was the first of many giant steps in a celebrated career that began in Alabama and led to Harvard. Sixty-four years after receiving his master’s degree, E. O. Wilson is unquestionably the most famous biologist and arguably the most famous person to have ever graduated from the University of Alabama.

Tracking the career milestones of such a luminary is both easy and difficult—easy because there are so many notable achievements to choose from; difficult because deciding which ones to select is a humbling task. How do you appropriately classify the world’s top expert on ants who has also indisputably achieved the top tiers of excellence as an evolutionary biologist, sociobiologist, biogeographer, and philosopher of scientific ethics? What can you say about someone who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1969 at the age of 35 and in 1977 was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science by President Carter for contributions to the advancement of knowledge in biology? Awards are benchmarks that let us put a scientist in context with other scientists. E. O. Wilson’s distinction becomes clear in the light of the many tributes to him for specific achievements, a body of work, or ideas and forward thinking.

Noteworthy examples of Professor Wilson’s more than 250 medals, prizes, and other accolades are numerous. He received the internationally recognized Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (1984) for his definitive theory of island biogeography and its implications for conservation. He has won not one but two Pulitzer Prizes (On Human Nature, 1971; The Ants, with Bert Hölldobler, 1990). And in 1990, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded him the Crafoord Prize, which constitutes the world’s most prestigious honor in the biological sciences with an emphasis on ecology.

Other awards presented to this extraordinary man may be less prominent, but they have their own significance. In his book Naturalist, his captivating autobiography that has become an inspiration to all aspiring field biologists, he speaks of a time in Mobile, Alabama, when he was 13 and joined the Boy Scouts of America. He was intrigued with the instructional opportunities for learning about nature through merit badges and other activities. In 2004, at the age of 75, E. O. Wilson received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award. To even be considered a candidate one must have been recognized for service both to one’s community and to one’s profession for at least a quarter of a century after becoming an Eagle Scout. Many state governors have received the award. Few scientists other than E. O. Wilson are ever likely to do so.

In 2001 Wilson received the Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest and in 1994 the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science. The fact that these impressive awards have at times also gone to nationally known members of the entertainment community (James Cameron, Hollywood director, received the first honor; and M*A*S*H’s Alan Alda was awarded the second) is noteworthy. Such recognition speaks to E. O. Wilson’s effectiveness as a revered scientist and someone who can effectively communicate scientific information to the general public.

Among Wilson’s strongest ties are those to his home state and to his alma mater, where he started his professional career as a field biologist fascinated with the biodiversity around him. Over the years, he has returned often to the University of Alabama. A fitting celebration of Earth Day in April 2014 was the Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Symposium, which was held at the university. E. O. Wilson’s contributions to science and society cannot be overstated, and a full discussion of his writings and awards would be lengthy indeed. His honors are many, and his legacy is lasting.

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Whit Gibbons is the author of Turtles: The Animal Answer Guide. He is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Georgia and the author or coauthor of 20 books on ecology and herpetology. JHU Press is the publisher of E. O. Wilson’s Nature Revealed: Selected Writings, 1949-2006 and, with José M. Gómez Durán, Kingdom of Ants: José Celestino Mutis and the Dawn of Natural History in the New World.