W. Thomas Edmondson (1916-2000)

W. Thomas Edmondson (1916-2000)

Edmondson, WW. Thomas Edmondson died on 10 January 2000. As many readers of SILnews know, he was a major international figure in limnology, ecology and environmental science. He was also loved by many of his colleagues for his unfailing enthusiasm for interesting ideas, people and music. Edmondson was best known among scientists, politicians and the public for his groundbreaking research concerning the effects of nutrient pollution on lakes. Within the community of invertebrate zoologists, however, he was a central figure in the study of rotifer ecology and taxonomy, and among population biologists he was best known for his development of a practical and elegant method for calculating the birth and death rates of zooplankton in nature.

Tommy, as his friends knew him, came to the study of freshwaters early. It was only a few years after his birth in April 1916 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that he formed his childhood fascination with pools and their microscopic residents. This developing passion led to birthday presents from his family of a microscope at age 12 and a copy of Ward and Whipple’s “Freshwater Biology” at age 13. In 1934, as a high school student in New Haven, Connecticut, his abilities in science and his interest in rotifers brought him to the attention of G.E. Hutchinson at Yale University, who provided encouragement, laboratory bench space and access to interesting plankton samples from around the globe (Hutchinson, 1988). Indeed Edmondson’s first eight publications, spanning the period while he was a student in high school and college, dealt with rotifers collected from Hispaniola, the Himalayas, Arizona and New England (Edmondson, 1988).

It was while he was in Hutchinson’s laboratory that Edmondson gained the first of his contacts with international colleagues that would grow and flourish throughout his life. In his reminiscence “Rotifer study as a way of life” (Edmondson, 1989), Tommy discussed how Hutchinson had visitors from all over the world stop by to visit and the interesting conversations that ensued. He went on to describe how, as a student, he began a steady correspondence with other people studying rotifers including scientists in England, France, Germany, Austria and Poland. His contacts were not international alone, however, and during his tenure as a student of Hutchinson’s, Edmondson also took an opportunity to diversify his scientific experience by spending a year at the University of Wisconsin. There, he took Chancey Juday’s limnology course and learned first-hand how Juday’s and Edward A. Birge’s approach to science was distinct intellectually from that of Hutchinson and his students. It was also in Juday’s course that Tommy met Yvette Hardman, a Ph.D. student working on microbial ecology. They helped each other with research and forged a collaboration, both scientific and personal, that endured for more than 60 years.

Edmondson received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1942, and found employment at a series of distinguished institutions: The American Museum of Natural History, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Harvard University. He worked at the former two on problems of predicting wave height and understanding sound transmission in the ocean while Yvette taught at her undergraduate alma mater, Bennington College in Vermont. At Harvard, Tommy taught students and carried out research with Yvette on nutrient controls of primary production. In 1949, the two of them moved to Seattle, Washington, where Tommy joined the Department of Zoology at the University of Washington. He remained on the faculty there for the rest of his career, helping to build one of the great departments in ecology and zoology in the United States.

After moving to Seattle, Tommy’s international contacts in limnology continued to grow. In 1959 and 1960, he and Yvette visited the Instituto Italiano di Idrobiologia in Pallanza where he developed his egg-ratio method for estimating vital rates for plankton populations (Edmondson, 1960). There, the two of them established a life-long friendship with Vittorio and Livia Tonolli (Edmondson & Edmondson, 1990), two international leaders in the study of inland waters. Later during the same leave of absence, Tommy and Yvette travelled to the Freshwater Biological Association laboratory on Windermere, where they again found friendship, and again with another limnological couple, John Lund and Hilda Canter-Lund. It was to John Lund’s long-term data sets for rotifer populations that Edmondson first applied his egg-ratio method in detail (Edmondson, 1965).

During this European trip, Edmondson attended his first meeting (in Vienna) of the Societas Internationalis Limnologiae, and from then on he was a regular participant and a visible presence at the triennial meetings, bustling from one session to another, sitting near the front at each lecture, and often at the end asking an insightful question or making an interesting comment. He truly loved the science of limnology. The wide diversity of disciplines covered by the sessions he chose to attend spoke to the range of his interests. Scientific meetings were a place to learn new things and to meet both old and new colleagues. One famous interaction took place at the 1965 SIL Congress in Warsaw at which Edmondson made an optimistic projection for the rate of recovery of Lake Washington from pollution (more about which below). The distinguished Swiss limnologist, A. Wuhrmann, suggested that the process would take much longer and the two wagered a bottle of liquor on the number of years that would lapse before Secchi disc transparency exceeded 4 m, the pre-eutrophication condition. At the 1971 SIL Congress in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Edmondson was able to present a graph during his lecture “The present condition of Lake Washington” showing that transparency had reached 4.5 m, right on schedule with his prediction (Edmondson, 1972). The bet was paid off a few years later with good humour and a bottle of Scotch. The lessons in maintaining contact with colleagues and in the value of continuity in attending scientific meetings are clear. In 1980, SIL awarded Edmondson the Einar Naumann-August Thienemann Medal: “For his research on the Rotatoria, pursued since his early youth, for his illuminating studies of the population dynamics and interrelations of the zooplankton and for having, in a unique example of combined theoretical and applied limnology, shown how wisely and humanely to treat a lake”.

At his office in Seattle, Tommy maintained an open door through which visitors were always welcome and, as had been the case with Hutchinson, friends and colleagues from around the world frequently stopped by. This same welcoming policy applied to his students as well. When any visitor arrived in his office, Tommy would jump up to clear a chair of the papers and books he had accumulated for his latest project, and the guest would be eagerly invited to sit down. He was never too busy to be interrupted and was always ready to hear the latest news about research ideas or sampling challenges. What he loved best, however, was data, especially when graphed. Discovering patterns in nature was his greatest joy, and he made voluminous graphs of his own results, which were often taped up around his office and laboratory for easier inspection and contemplation.

One of the people Edmondson met while in Pallanza during the period 1959-60 was Richard Vollenweider. This contact presaged a growing interest by both of these limnologists in the role of nutrients in lake eutrophication. In 1955, one of Edmondson’s Ph.D. students, George Anderson, had discovered Oscillatoria rubescens blooming in Lake Washington. The following year, these observations were reported in detail in a paper documenting increases in both the oxygen deficit and the phosphorus concentration in the bottom water of the lake. It was printed in 1956, Volume 1 of a new journal, Limnology and Oceanography, published by the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (Edmondson, 1956). Edmondson, himself, had previously become a charter member of ASLO in 1936, and later served as the society’s President in 1960 and 1961. Yvette served as the journal’s editor for 19 years, retiring from the post in 1986.

As the pollution of Lake Washington became increasingly apparent, Edmondson turned his research towards understanding the causes of eutrophication and his energies towards informing the public about its consequences. The results were remarkable in both instances (Lehman, 1988). By providing the citizens of Seattle and its surrounding communities with scientific information on the worsening condition of the lake, Edmondson was instrumental in informing political action that led to enhanced sewage treatment and a diversion of effluent away from the lake. In direct response to this action, algal biomass in the lake declined, cyanobacterial blooms abated, and water transparency improved dramatically.

By using the enrichment of the lake as an unplanned whole-lake experiment, Edmondson was able to demonstrate clearly the central role played by phosphorus in stimulating increases in algal biomass, and the comparatively minor importance of other nutrients. Furthermore, his studies of Lake Washington illustrated convincingly how reversing eutrophication could lead directly to improvement in water column conditions. Along with a handful of studies by other investigators, Edmondson’s Lake Washington research formed the foundation for legislation and management regulations concerning phosphorus pollution worldwide. The significance of his research as a touchstone in the political debate over how to control eutrophication was made clear by the vehemence with which Edmondson’s conclusions were attacked by representatives of the detergent industry. In contrast, the scientific community began recognizing the importance of his contributions through a series of honours including election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1973, the SIL Naumann-Thienemann Medal already mentioned, the F.G. Cottrell Award of the NAS for Environmental Quality in 1973, the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America in 1983, and the G. Evelyn Hutchinson Medal of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography in 1990.

In 1987, Edmondson gave a series of lectures at the University of Washington that provided him an opportunity to reflect on how ecological science is carried out and how it is interpreted and used by the public, governmental scientists, and politicians. He published these thoughts in 1991 in a book entitled “The Uses of Ecology: Lake Washington and Beyond” (Edmondson, 1991). In that volume, he laid out his view that the unintentional alteration of whole ecosystems by human activities such as water or atmospheric pollution should be seen as opportunities to understand ecological processes. He went on to explain his conviction that, although not strictly consistent with the formal principles of experimental design, these large-system manipulations have taught us a great deal about dynamics of a wide variety of ecosystems and their responses to external inputs. The critical role that long-term data collection played in Edmondson’s own studies of Lake Washington convinced him that funding agencies need to do more to make possible the continual assessment of single systems. In his own research, he repeatedly made new discoveries about the functioning of the Lake Washington ecosystem simply by following long-term changes in its components, including responses to nutrient addition, enhanced grazer abundance, and elevated alkalinity.

In addition to sharing with his colleagues a love for limnology, Tommy took great pleasure in sharing a passion for music. He and Yvette mentioned in their commentary on life in Pallanza (Edmondson & Edmondson, 1990) that they enjoyed many musical evenings with Vollenweider, including occasions when Richard played his violin. Much earlier, Hutchinson had introduced Edmondson to the great harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick (whom Yvette already knew from Bennington College). Tommy subsequently sat in on Kirkpatrick’s course at Yale about the music of Bach. The two of them became good friends. Only recently, when I was on sabbatical leave at the Max-Planck-Institut für Limnologie in Plön, Germany, Tommy asked me to keep a look out for a recording by Kirkpatrick of Bach’s Goldberg Variations that he had been unable to find in the United States. He wanted to buy a copy to send to Alexei Ghilarov in Moscow who had independently acquired a deep appreciation for Kirkpatrick’s performances. Upon learning of their mutual interest in that artist, Tommy and Alexei had become instant friends. Ghilarov later arranged for the translation of Edmondson’s book “The Uses of Ecology: Lake Washington and Beyond” into Russian (Edmondson, 1991). At the 1998 SIL meeting in Dublin, I was able to hand the Kirkpatrick-Bach CD to one of Ghilarov’s students to take back to him in Moscow. This was the first SIL meeting in 39 years that Edmondson had not attended.

When news of Tommy’s death reached Ghilarov, he sent me a wonderfully expressive letter in which he commented: “Perhaps it sounds strange but the personality of Tommy Edmondson was associated for me with the old Russian (!) intelligentsia – a very thin and now unfortunately already extinct layer of our society. The representatives of this layer were not only highly educated people, but also devoted to science and culture. Most important were their nobility, generosity, kindness and honesty. Tommy was a typical representative of the intelligentsia; he was “intelligent” in the Russian meaning of this word (which as I know has no exact equivalent in English). It does not matter that he was not Russian but American”. Indeed, it does not matter what Tommy Edmondson’s nationality was. He was a friend, a colleague, a mentor and an enthusiast to the entire limnological community.


Chasen, D.J., 1971. The Seattle area wouldn’t allow death of its lake. Smithsonian 2: 6-13.

Edmondson, W.T. 1960. Reproductive rate of rotifers in natural populations. Mem. Ist. Ital. Idrobiol. 12: 21-77.

Edmondson, W.T. 1965. Reproductive rate of planktonic rotifers as related to food and temperature in nature. Ecol. Monogr. 35: 61-111.

Edmondson, W.T. 1972. The present condition of Lake Washington. Int. Ver. Theor. Angew. Limnol. Verh. 18: 284-291.

Edmondson, W.T. 1988. Bibliography of W.T. Edmondson. In: Hairston, N.G. Jr., Lehman, J.T. & Stockner, J.G. (eds.), W.T. Edmondson Celebratory Issue. Limnol. Oceanogr. 33:1241-1243.

Edmondson, W.T. 1989. Rotifer study as a way of life. In: Ricci, C., Snell, T.W. & King, C.E. (eds.), Rotifer Symposium V. Hydrobiologia 186/187: 1-9.

Edmondson, W.T. 1991. The uses of ecology: Lake Washington and Beyond. 329 pp., Univ. Washington Press., Seattle.

Edmondson, W.T., Anderson, G.C. & Peterson, D.R. 1956. Artificial eutrophication of Lake Washington. Limnol. Oceanogr. 1: 47-53.

Edmondson, W.T. & Edmondson, Y.H. 1990. Pallanza as a haven for visiting limnologists. In: de Bernardi, R., Giussani, G. & Barbanti, L. (eds.), Scientific perspectives and theoretical and applied limnology. Mem. Ist. Ital. Idrobiol. 47: 47-55.

Hutchinson, G.E. 1988. W. Thomas Edmondson. In: Hairston, N.G. Jr., Lehman, J.T. & Stockner, J.G. (eds.), W.T. Edmondson Celebratory Issue. Limnol. Oceanogr. 33: 1231-1233.

Lehman, J.T. 1988. Good Professor Edmondson. In: Hairston, N.G. Jr., Lehman, J.T. & Stockner, J.G. (eds.), W.T. Edmondson Celebratory Issue. Limnol. Oceanogr. 33: 1234-1240.

Nelson G. Hairston, Jr., is the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Environmental Science, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Corson Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arch. Hydriobiol. 148:3-8, 2000.