E. C. Pielou, 1923-2016

Very sad news: E. C. Pielou has passed away. After earning two PhDs–in mathematics and mathematical ecology–she pioneered multivariate statistics in ecology. Like countless ecologists, I learned multivariate statistics from her classic textbook, The Interpretation of Ecological Data. She wrote several other books on mathematical ecology. Canadian ecologists in particular will feel her loss; she held faculty positions at Queens, Dalhousie, and Lethbridge (that last as a Canada Research Chair), and remained an active environmentalist, naturalist, and nature writer in British Columbia until the end of her life. Among her many awards and honors, she was the second woman to receive the ESA’s Eminent Ecologist Award, in 1986. Fond personal remembrance from Loys Maingon of Comox Valley Nature here.

2016 has been a sad year for ecology–a whole generation of giants is passing on.

UPDATE: In the comments, Meg passes on a link to Jacquelyn Gill’s very nice 2012 piece on E. C. Pielou. Both her piece, and the remembrance linked above, include amusing anecdotes attesting to the value Pielou attached to mathematical rigor and precision. Jacquelyn’s piece also includes detail on Pielou’s remarkable life story, of which I was embarrassingly unaware. She started out as a self-taught amateur in the late 1950s, and was awarded a PhD from the University of London based on papers she’d written on her own without an adviser or supervisory committee.

7 thoughts on “E. C. Pielou, 1923-2016

      • That MacArthur anecdote from Jacquelyn is very telling. Nicely illustrates that mathematically-oriented ecologists aren’t all the same. Pielou was a stickler for rigor and precision, MacArthur not so much–indeed, he was probably about as loosey-goosey (and mistake-prone) as you can be while still having your work count as math rather than verbal argument.

        Whether Pielou’s approach to ecology was, as MacArthur claimed, “obsolete”, then or now, is of course open to debate. You’d probably get different answers if you asked different people. I don’t do descriptive ordinations myself and I’m not a huge fan of them, I think community ecologists too often overinterpret them. But you can use multivariate statistics, including ordination and dimension reduction methods, in lots of ways for lots of purposes. And MacArthur’s own approach of course isn’t the only alternative to descriptive ordination, so it’s not as if there’s a binary choice to be made here. I’d like to think that the best contemporary community ecology combines the best aspects of both MacArthur and Pielou (and the best aspects of other approaches).

  1. Jeremy,

    Just a coincidence, but I’ve just finished reading Dr Pielou’s books–After the Ice Age, Fresh Water, and part way through World of Northern Evergreens. I kept tring to find an email or website where I could tell her how well done these books are. The books are not quite textbooks and are IDEAL intros to the subject. The issues are very current. Would you see if you can get all of them put on web as free electronic books? I think that would be a great legacy. Thank you.

    -Paul Weinstein
    Albany NY USA

  2. “Would you see if you can get all of them put on web as free electronic books?”

    Um, her books are copyrighted. Neither I nor anyone else who doesn’t own the rights can or should make them free online. Plus, they’re a great legacy already.

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