On Charles Elton

Charles Elton was the Father of Animal Ecology and many young ecologists do not learn very much about him. He founded the Bureau of Animal Population at Oxford in 1932, and much of the history of his research group is captured in Peter Crowcroft’s book “Elton’s Ecologists” (1991). I was fortunate to spend the winter of 1960-61 at the Bureau while I was completing my Ph.D. at UBC with Dennis Chitty. It was Dennis’ last year at the Bureau, having gone there in 1935 when he had just finished his undergraduate work at the University of Toronto.

The Bureau of Animal Population or BAP, as all connected with it came to call it, had been born in January 1932 and by 1934 Oxford University had guaranteed funds for its core costs for five years with 3-4 scientific staff and a very few assistants. Survival as a unit depended on working on numerous applied projects, and the species receiving attention included Canadian snowshoe hares, Canadian lynx, muskrat, beaver, lemmings, European rabbits, squirrels, voles and the wood mouse. The Bureau was the home of the newly created Journal of Animal Ecology, of which Charles Elton was the first editor.

Charles Elton was a proper English gentleman, a gentle soul who had a coterie of first class ecologists in the BAP. The BAP was very nearly the world centre for ecology from the 1930s to the 1960s when ecology began its great growth around the world, so everyone who was interested in population ecology considered it equivalent to Mecca for science. Every day there was tea in the BAP in 1960, when we all took time to interact with the other postdocs and graduate students in the BAP, a total group of perhaps 15-20. Once a week Mr. Elton (as he never did a Ph.D.) would preside over tea around a table in the BAP Library and give out any news of the week to the staff and students. On most days he wore a tie and a sport coat in the best English tradition, and signed his letters as “Elton”. In 1960 he was compiling a species list for Wytham Woods, a 390 ha forest reserve belonging to the University. He felt strongly that one had to know all the species in a community before you could understand how it operated. So one could see him day after day pinning insects in trays. He was always very serious, and the only joke I ever heard him tell was about how he could never understand Americans. He had gone to the New World after the War, perhaps 1947 or 1948 and was visiting a famous American scientist. They had to get up at 0700 in the morning and rush to work without a proper English breakfast, and so at 0800 they arrived in the professor’s office, and then Elton said he was told ‘now you can relax’. It was not the proper English way to start the day and he could never understand the rush-rush style of the New World.

Charles Elton founded the Journal of Animal Ecology in 1931, now one of our leading journals. In the early days he did much of the reviewing and accepting of papers for the Journal. He had an amusing tale of the classic papers of A.J. Nicholson (1933) on the balance of animal populations. He received this very long paper and he could not find anyone who would agree to review it so he did it himself. He confessed to us one day at tea that he found he could not understand anything in the paper, so he decided it must be very brilliant so he published it immediately. Alas those days are gone.

There were of course no electronic machines even in 1960 and Elton did all his writing by pen and paper. He had just finished the now famous book “The Ecology of Invasions” and his secretary who typed all his work pointed out to me that he never changed a word from what he first wrote. No need for revisions and revisions. He was of course like a god to all of us young ecologists, and so we were very fortunate that this was the year in which he was teaching his Animal Ecology course to Oxford undergraduates. All of us graduate students and postdocs went along, as it was only a series of 14 lectures in the best Oxford tradition. The classroom was full in the first lecture, which was one of the worst lectures I have ever attended. We were rather stunned that such a great man could lecture so hopelessly, mumbling in a monotone, showing slides but almost never referring to them, every mistake in the book. We realized then that greatness could occur in many dimensions and his skill was as a writer. Classroom attendance fell like an exponential and by the fifth lecture no one was left in the classroom but we of the BAP.

Elton organized the BAP as a small research unit and did not believe that any research unit should exceed more than a handful of scientists who interacted all the time over a small subset of problems. In the early days much of the research was on cyclic populations of rodents and fur bearers in Europe and North America, but it moved to insects and broader problems after the War.

Oxford was a strange place to a North American in 1960. Too many of the professors were at odds with one another, jostling for fame we all presumed. It was impossible not to have many enemies within and outside the walls of Oxford, and we as students never quite knew why some were praised and others reviled. Perhaps ideas were confounded with personalities, and no one thought that you could respect a scientist but disagree with his or her view of science. But much was at stake then, and when you were King of Oxford you were king of the hill. Now 50 years later we have many kings of science all around the world, and I hope that Oxford has changed.

 

Crowcroft, P. 1991. Elton’s Ecologists: A History of the Bureau of Animal Population. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 177 pp.

Elton, C. S. 1958. The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants. Methuen, London. 181 pp.

Nicholson, A. J. 1933. The balance of animal populations. Journal of Animal Ecology 2:132-178.

 

One thought on “On Charles Elton

  1. Juan Calvo-Cubero

    Thanks to share this anecdote, I think small stories like this are really important to understand ecology history.

    As a young ecologist I’m always trying to understand where ecology come from to know where I am, so I try to read ecology history books (e.g. McIntosh) but stories like you explain or biographies like the one of O. Wilson is where I found how ecology works and ecological practices is done.

    I hope you post more ecology stories to light up the history of ecology.

    Thanks again, Juan

    Reply

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