Courtesy Carnegie Institution for Science Administrative Archives
Even as a controversial ecologist, Frederic Clements was considered one of the biggest contributors to theoretical plant ecology, phytogeography, and experimental taxonomy. A renowned botanist, Arthur G. Tansley, recalled Clements as “by far the greatest individual creator of the modern science of vegetation.”
Frederic Clements was born on September 15, 1874, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Clements’s interest in botany was evident in high school where he joined botanical clubs. By nineteen, Clements had already traveled all throughout Nebraska collecting plants and consuming literature on botany. Fittingly, Clements later became a professor at the University of Nebraska and the University of Minnesota where he studied botany and plant physiology.
His early work consisted of implementing European phytogeography methods into American plant ecological practices and made Clements an ecological pioneer. At the time in America, ecological studies weren’t considered a formal subject. However, Clements changed the game. Along with the head of the project Roscoe Pound, Clements published “The Phytogeography of Nebraska” in 1898, producing the first official botanical survey of any state in the United States. In the article, Clements elaborated on all vegetative species present in Nebraska, the state’s geology, the species interactions with each other, and more. This paper vastly altered ecologists’ viewpoints on studying vegetation.
Clements is also well known for theorizing that environments undergo evolutionary stages to reach a climax. The climax of a domain is a stable, sustainable state containing a variety of species. In 1916, he published the article “Plant Succession: An Analysis of the Development of Vegetation” in which he visualized the growth of an environment’s vegetation as the development of a complex super-organism. While this theory was revered by most, many criticized Clements for this imagery. His theories eventually became the foundation of how to study plant communities. The theory was even used to support the idea that the Great Plains came out of equilibrium after the Dust Bowl was over.
From 1917-1941, he studied ecology as a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science. After the Dust Bowl hit the United States in the 1930s, Clements was valued as one of the leading researchers that determined how to restore vegetation in the wake of the Dust Bowl. Focusing on the Great Plains, he proposed that there were climatic cycles in which climate change influences the plant formation in environments. He later published "Climatic Cycles and Human Populations on the Great Plains" addressing this phenomenon in 1938.
Among classic ecologists, many of Clements’s theories and assumptions were not widely accepted. However, he always remained pragmatic and understood how to build off of all constructive criticism. Clements was a key ecologist in his time and is still praised for his initial experiments in the field of ecology.
--by Suhyun (Suzie) Lee (2019), Carnegie Summer Intern in the Rhee lab