George Woodwell
George Woodwell. Photo courtesy of Woodwell Climate Research Center

The MBL is saddened to share that George Woodwell, founding director of the MBL Ecosystems Center in 1975, died on June 18, 2024. His passing was announced by Woodwell Climate Research Center, formerly the Woods Hole Research Center, which Woodwell founded in 1985 after leaving the MBL. In addition to his major contributions to MBL research and administration, Woodwell was a member of the MBL Corporation (now called MBL Society) from 1976 to 1986 and a faculty member in several MBL courses. The MBL flag will be lowered in his memory.

“George’s scientific inquiries hit on the biggest environmental issues of the late twentieth century, including DDT, nuclear radiation, and finally, what was, at the time, known as ‘the carbon dioxide problem’,” wrote R. Max Holmes, president and CEO of Woodwell Climate Research Center. “His testimony at the first Congressional hearing on climate change in 1986 was prescient, and remarkable for the issues he brought forth there—the threat of permafrost thaw, the importance of forests—that have been enduring pillars of climate science … At a time when the biological sciences were increasingly focused on the molecular and cellular level, George was steadfast in his belief that ecosystem-level understanding was critical.”

Born in 1928 in Cambridge, Mass., Woodwell earned his Ph.D. in Botany and Plant Ecology at Duke University in 1958. After three years teaching at the University of Maine, he moved to Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he built a program of basic research and ecology focused on the effects of ionizing radiation on the environment. He first came to the MBL in 1972, when he organized a meeting of the MBL Advisory Group on Environmental Programs. In 1974 he became an instructor in the MBL Ecology Course, as well as the MBL’s Assistant Director of Education. On January 1, 1975, under the initiative of then MBL Director James Ebert, the Ecosystems Center was established with Woodwell as director.

The new MBL Ecosystems Center focused on the causes and consequences of carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere, what Woodwell called “the biological causes and effects of climatic disruption.” “I thought the carbon dioxide problem was the big problem,” he said in a video interview with the MBL History Project. “It couples in all of the aspects of biogeochemistry, the biosphere, human welfare, agriculture, the future and the past. I thought it needed every ounce of effort that the scientific community could put into it. Which is what we did.”

During his decade establishing and running the Ecosystems Center, Woodwell built up an expert research staff, including MBL Distinguished Scientists Jerry Melillo and John Hobbie, who co-directed the Center after Woodwell left, and current Ecosystems Center Director Anne Giblin. Woodwell also served on the course faculty for Microbial Ecology in 1979 and Marine Ecology from 1982-1985.

Woodwell is survived by his wife, Katharine; four children, Caroline, Marjorie, Jane, and John Woodwell; and four grandchildren.

A remembrance for Woodwell will be held at the Woodwell Climate Research Center on July 26; details to follow.

An obituary published by The New York Times is here.