Rivalries Among the Founders of Ecology

August, 2014

Lincoln -- Nebraska, in particular its state university, can rightfully claim to be the home of the academic discipline of ecology. Elsewhere on this blog I have written about Frederic and Edith Clements and their legacy at the University of Nebraska.

If there is another locale and institution that could make a rival claim it would be the Chicago area and the University of Chicago. It was here that Henry Chandler Cowles made his studies of the Indiana Dunes in 1898 and led a department that produced many of the leading ecologists of the twentieth century.

Frederic Clements and Henry Cowles were contemporaries and collaborated on international botanical excursions. They and their wives participated in the first International Phytogeographic Excursion, which took place in the United Kingdom in 1911. They were co-organizers and leaders of the second IPE when it toured the United States in 1913.

This month I visited the Henry Chandler Cowles collection in the archives of the University of Chicago to look more carefully at the Clements/Cowles relationship, especially to see if there was evidence of a rivalry that may have influenced the development of ecology as a discipline. Evidence in other collections, namely the letters of Edith Clements from the 1911 excursion, makes it clear that the two couples were not on the best of terms. This apparently carried over even beyond the grave.

Henry Cowles actually had a strong Nebraska connection that could have been the basis for a better relationship. He began his teaching career in the 1890s at Gates College in Neligh, Nebraska, before moving on to the University of Chicago. During his career he was well acquainted with Nebraska botanists and ecologists. The Cowles collection contains friendly correspondence from T.L. Steiger (who worked with Clements' protégé John Weaver on the prairies around Lincoln) and Raymond Pool, another Clements student and longtime chairman of the Nebraska botany department.

But Frederic Clements and Henry Cowles were opposites in many ways. Clements was a driven man whose intense work ethic was influenced by hyperthyroidism; Cowles, especially in his prime teaching years, was jolly and led memorable class excursions. One account has Cowles running the aisles of a train in Montana barefoot with a liquor bottle in hand. This would have annoyed Clements, an outspoken teetotaler, to no end. Roscoe Pound once described Frederic Clements as a man with no redeeming vices.

Both scientists wrote poetry. Clements' early poetry was earnest in the style of Robert Browning; Cowles began writing devout Christian verse, based on sermons he attended as a young man, but as an adult he wrote doggerel that delighted Chicago students and faculty. Clements was an avowed atheist, whose own grand theory of nature could itself be called a religion, and saw himself as a nature poet.

Edith Clements was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. She was also a teaching fellow in the German department. She conducted herself as a scientist on the international excursions and frowned on Elizabeth Cowles' way of forever making small talk among the traveling parties. Edith Clements, in letters now at the Nebraska State Historical Society, called Elizabeth Cowles a "bromine".

The rivalry between the two men shows up in an apologetic 1935 letter to Henry Cowles from Sir Arthur Tansley, the eminent British ecologist. In an earlier Festschrift publication Tansley had called Frederic Clements "the greatest individual creator of the modern science of vegetation" but privately he wrote to Henry Cowles, "I should have said that Clements 'had made a unique and indispensible contribution to the theory of vegetation rather than that he is the 'the greatest individual creator, etc.'" [Box 3, Folder 1]

On Henry Cowles' death in 1939, many letters of condolence were written to Elizabeth, including a touching one from Raymond Pool in Nebraska, but none came from Frederic or Edith Clements. Or at least none is in the collection.

What is noteworthy about the Henry Cowles collection is what is missing. It is a fairly large collection of over twenty linear feet, but it seems not to contain any records of the interactions between the Clementses and the Cowleses. There are good records of other travels, but none from the IPEs of 1911 and 1913, historically the most significant.

Perhaps some of the missing records are at the Library of Congress, which has considerable documentation of the development of the discipline of ecology. But according to daughter Harriet Cowles, Elizabeth took many of Henry's papers after his death and put them on the curb as garbage (at 5722 Blackstone in Hyde Park), thinking no one would have an interest in them. That may not be the whole story. Elizabeth may have been systematic in what was retained and what was destroyed so as to limit future generations' ability to examine conflicts among the founders of ecology. Early correspondence and love letters between Henry and Elizabeth, which were not thrown out, show them to be adept academic in-fighters when it came to Henry's career. Henry writes Elizabeth in 1901 that if his colleague Chamberlain is promoted over him, he "will raise a deuce of a row." [Box 3, Folder 5]

Why is this important? Both Cowles and Clements revolutionized the study of nature with their theories of orderly plant succession, sometimes called "dynamic ecology." Because Clements published much more than Cowles, the theory came to be known as the Clementsian paradigm. When this theory came under attack by Henry Gleason, who argued that nature was far more chaotic than orderly, Cowles largely remained on the sidelines. It could be argued that this was because Gleason had been a student of Cowles at the University of Chicago, but so had Victor Shelford, who collaborated with Clements on extending the Clementsian paradigm to all biology. Or perhaps Cowles wanted to emphasize his own differences with Clements over the direction and details of plant succession, which were significant. But the answer may be that Frederic, Edith, Henry, and Elizabeth just didn't get along.

The battle between Clementsian and Gleasonian views of nature goes on into this century, unfortunately with too little enlightenment from the Henry Chandler Cowles collection.