Ramón Margalef (1919-2004)

Ramón Margalef (1919-2004)

Margalef, Ramón“To speak of Ecology is to speak about Margalef, but to speak of Margalef is certainly more than to speak of Ecology”. These were the first words used by Spanish Oceanographer, Josefina Castellvi upon introducing Margalef on the reception of the last award Margalef received; the Gold Medal of the Catalan Government on October 7, 2003. And I obviously think that these were the fairest words to describe the career of Margalef, extending from his contributions to Ecology to the human being who will be never forgotten by the many people who had the good fortune to interact with him.

Margalef will be remembered by his many contributions to limnology and oceanography, but also to ecological theory (e.g., Perspectives in Ecological Theory 1968). Overall, he published more than 400 papers and 12 books. His contributions to teaching were outstanding. He wrote the book Ecología, first published in 1974, and later Limnología in 1983, which advanced the teaching and the development of ecology and limnology not only in Spain, but also in other Spanish-speaking countries.

Margalef was a pioneer. He was the first ecology professor in Spain, as well as the first Spaniard to attend and participate in SIL meetings in the fifties and sixties. He was also the first ecologist to connect information theory with ecological theory. He had many other firsts as well. This was being done with few resources and a lot of enthusiasm and intelligence. He used to say that “In the University pond there is enough interest for a thesis to be done”, and he was not a preacher of empty words. As an example, he built his own microscope from spare parts in post-war Spain of the 40s. Equipped with a bicycle, a net and a bag filled with empty aspirin tubes, he sampled many waterbodies throughout Spain for the first time.

He received many awards during his long career. I will only include in this long list two which could be the most important for those involved in aquatic ecology. These were the Huntsman Prize of Biological Oceanography (1980) and the Naumann-Thieneman Medal of the International Society for Limnology (1989). However, he did not like receiving prizes, reasoning that “It is related to age” and “Criticisms are more stimulating than recognition”. Those who interacted with him are unanimous in feeling that Margalef had unusual generosity and humility; two exceptional virtues among scientists. Many stories have been related these days that involved his openness in listening to someone coming to him with a question, or asking him for help. He always had a refreshing, unique view of the situation when replying to these questions. Many times, even without catching the complete meaning of his reply, the interaction resulted in the encouragement and formulation of other related questions that were even more stimulating than the first one. That was the way that Margalef saw his role as a professor.

Margalef had an encyclopaedic knowledge on the organisms inhabiting fresh and marine waters. This is impressively demonstrated in his book, Limnología. To him, the organisms were not static, but were part of a unified entity that also included the physical and chemical environment. He described the mechanisms of plankton succession and the role of physical processes in structuring plankton communities, contributing not only to the expansion of limnology, but also of oceanography.

Professor of professors, Margalef supervised 36 doctoral theses between 1971 and 1990. Many of his former students are now spread in universities and research centers throughout Spain and Latin America. He also helped to train many non-academic ecologists, who also feel somewhat orphaned without him. Moreover, he stimulated the formation of the Spanish Society for Limnology in 1981 by encouraging a group of young and enthusiastic limnologists to take the Society in their own independent direction. This was yet a further indication of his way of leading science and life.

Ramón Margalef passed away on May 23, 2004. He died quietly, just as he carried out his research and taught his many students. His beloved wife, Maria Mir, also a biologist with whom he had four children and published several joint scientific contributions, survived him only seven days. May the two of them rest in peace.


Margalef, R. 1968. Perspectives in Ecological Theory, University of Chicago Press. 111 pp.

Margalef, R. 1974. Ecología. Omega, Barcelona. 951 pp.

Margalef, R. 1983. Limnología. Omega, Barcelona. 1120 pp.