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The Dartmouth
February 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Woodwell blazes environmental path

Montgomery Fellow George Masters Woodwell '50 fondly recalled his days in the Dartmouth Outing Club as he sat in the sun-lit living room of the Montgomery House.

Woodwell's involvement in the DOC and his studies in botany built upon his interest in environmental issues -- an interest which eventually led him to found the Woods Hole Research Center.

Now, as president and director of Woods Hole, an institute for global environmental research, Woodwell has returned to Dartmouth to share his passion for the environment.

"I don't get a chance to do things like this regularly," he said. "I'm really delighted to be at Dartmouth."

He said his experiences outside of the College will allow him to give Dartmouth students a chance to learn from a new perspective.

"I think it is a chance for Dartmouth to get an experience with a different sort of person," Woodwell said. "I'm a scientist, not a college person."

He said he has enjoyed his visit so far, especially the opportunity it has given him to interact with students.

"I've found it is a great pleasure to talk to students." he said.

Woodwell said he is impressed with the changes in Dartmouth over the past 45 years.

"Dartmouth is a powerhouse with magnificent faculty and a student body without parallel," he said. "I think the off-campus programs are a really important adjunct to education."

Woodwell came to Dartmouth as a student after World War II. He studied botany, which he said was "practically a biology major."

Woodwell said some of his fondest memories of his time as a student at Dartmouth came through his involvement with the DOC. He was chairman of Cabin and Trail and said the club was "very strong."

"I remember leading a freshman trip climbing Mount Moosilauke," he said. "I made a lot of great friends through the Outing Club."

Woodwell said he has remained in contact with the friends he made in his classes at Dartmouth and through the DOC.

"We've all studied in similar fields so we've stayed in touch," he said.

Woodwell's research has centered around the structure and function of natural communities and their role as segments of the biosphere.

He said he has focused his research on how the world works as a biophysical system.

In April 1985, he founded the world-renowned Woods Hole Research Center to expand his research and influence the world's understanding of the problems of the environment.

"We set up the Woods Hole Research Center to do research, offer educational programs and connect science to public affairs," he said. "We focus on global issues in research such as global warming."

Woodwell played a major role in establishing the World Commission on Forests, an independent commission which includes 25 commissioners from around the world.

"Forests are big in determining the global carbon budget. We've done a lot of work in forests all over the world," he said. "We've done work in Siberia and the Amazon basin to study the forests' change in area, growth and destruction."

Woodwell said his center helped with the Framework Convention on Climate Change -- an international treaty that was written, prepared and signed at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Conference on the environment.

"The treaty says we will stabilize the content of warming gases in the atmosphere," he said. "The Clinton Administration has supported the treaty and its timetable."

He said the United States will play a key role in determining what action the nations of the world will take to fix the problems in the atmosphere.

"The U.S. is the world leader [in determining] whatever happens. It can lead for good or for ill," Woodwell said. "We hope that it will lead for good and not for ill."

Woodwell has also studied the ecological effects of ionizing radiation and the circulation and effects of pesticides and other toxins.

He has served on the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council for more than 25 years.

"The council's central job is to make the government obey its own laws and to help to write new laws," he said. "Their primary interest is the public interest and they seek rules that protect the quality of life."

He said he thinks these treaties show that the global community has made some necessary changes, but more needs to be done.

"There is progress, but it's slow in comparison to need," Woodwell said. "There should be drastic efforts in controlling the world's population."

Woodwell has published more than 300 papers on ecology and has contributed articles to a number of publications, including Scientific America and the Journal of Ecology. He has edited books on the effects of nuclear war, the global carbon cycle and biotic impoverishment.

Woodwell, who lives on the water in Woods Hole, Mass., with his wife, said he enjoys going sailing with his two of his children.

He will speak this afternoon in Dartmouth Hall about "The Co-Evolution of Science and Democracy: Has Anyone Seen the Public Interest Recently?"

The Montgomery Endowment, initiated in 1978 by Kenneth Montgomery '25, brings prominent individuals from various disciplines to the College to share their experiences in lecture or classes.