The Nebraska Hall of Fame, Part I: Frederic E. Clements

February, 2013

Lincoln -- The Nebraska Hall of Fame Commission selects one person every five years for inclusion into the Hall of Fame. The person must have been dead at least thirty-five years before selection, to ensure a test of time.

Last year I nominated Frederic E. Clements and his wife Edith Schwartz Clements, both NU graduates, botanists, and founders of the science of ecology. They were a team of scientists the likes of which, according to the Nebraska Press Association, had not been seen since the Curies. It was foretold that they could not be chosen, because the state governing statute permits only one selectee at a time. The Commission chose Alvin Johnson, a deserving addition whom I also supported.

The Commission has discussed the need for a statutory change. I was gratified that it recognized the importance of the Clementses and may recommend statutory changes to give the Commission more flexibility. The following is the short version of my presentation to the Commission on behalf of Frederic Clements.


Where to start to describe perhaps the greatest scientist ever produced by the State of Nebraska, Frederic Clements? He was a whirlwind student at the University of Nebraska: Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, varsity football, co-founder of the Pershing Rifles, poet, botanical surveyor of the Missouri and Niobrara valleys, and president of the Seminarium Botanicum (Sem Bot), which elevated academic standards at the fledgling university and put it on the map as one of the nation's leading universities of its day.

After writing, with his co-author Roscoe Pound, one of the world's first phytogeographical surveys (for which both authors received a Ph.D.) he joined the University of Nebraska faculty in 1899. By 1905 he had written a body of scientific work, including Research Methods in Ecology, that established him as founder of the modern science of plant ecology. With his approach to "dynamic ecology" he became known nationally to Gifford Pinchot at the U.S. Forest Service and soon became chair of the department of botany at the University of Minnesota. There his publications marked him as one of the world's leading scientists in his field and he moved in 1917 to the Carnegie Institution, which placed him in charge of its laboratories in Tucson and Santa Barbara, in addition to supporting his own laboratory (established with his wife Edith) at Pikes Peak.

Frederic aggressively advanced his ecological theories, which over time have become known as the "Clementsian paradigm." He viewed vegetation as an ordered community that was more than the sum of its individual plants, and traced the succession of plant communities in any given location toward an inevitable climax and stable state. He viewed environmental factors as determinative of climax states and also conducted experiments to show that environmental factors were heritable.

These views eventually were challenged by others in the academic community who favored a more individualistic and chaotic view of nature and who insisted that Clements step back from his claims that environmental factors were heritable. The Clementsian paradigm began to fall from academic favor and after Frederic's death in 1945 survived mainly through the network of followers that Frederic had, during the Dust Bowl years, built up in the Forest Service, the Soil Conservation Service, and among practitioners in the field of range management.

The Clementsian paradigm, however, became a model in other disciplines that borrowed its holistic approach. Moreover, the inventiveness and pioneering work of Frederic Clements in botany and ecology made him an important figure in the history of science. In recent decades, many articles and books have rediscovered Frederic and Edith Clements; more are inevitable as the new field of epigenetics demonstrates that environmental factors are indeed heritable. Not long ago I had a note from a Canadian scholar who wrote, "the Clementses will be having something of a comeback - along with the Tansleys." Sir Arthur Tansley, once a rival of Clements for recognition as the world's leading ecologist, wrote of Frederic Clements that he was "by far the greatest individual creator of the modern science of vegetation."