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Notable Limnologists: Robert G. Wetzel (1936-2005)

Notable Limnologists: Robert G. Wetzel (1936-2005)

Robert G. Wetzel, SIL General Secretary and Treasurer, passed away at his home on Monday, 18 April 2005. This is a momentous loss for his family, friends, colleagues,many past students and postdoctoral associates, and the entire aquatic and limnological research community. His prodigious scientific productivity, boundless energy, attention to detail and kind, generous and gentle spirit will be greatly missed.

He received many awards and accolades for his scientific work, and recently was awarded the Hutchinson Science Laureate Award.  For more than three decades, he was the guiding hand and “glue” for SIL. We all are deeply in his debt for his leadership of, devotion to and admiration for SIL, our professional society. He was an outstanding colleague and dear friend.

The paths certain gifted people take through their lives are marked with such vision that their thoughts and actions change entire disciplines. Dr. Robert G. Wetzel, a true leader in the field of freshwater science, was such a person.

Several decades ago when freshwater biology focused almost entirely on fish, as a young man he quietly stood on the shore of a small lake in the upper Midwest and grasped what many had overlooked - the enormous importance of the plants of the marshy fringes, the wetland areas, in controlling the fundamental functioning of freshwater ecosystems. His thoughts, and the brilliant synthesis of all aspects of lakes and streams in his writings—30 books and 400+ publications, including the definitive book of this field—completely changed scientific understanding of how freshwater ecosystems work.

Freshwater ecosystems were a great passion in Dr. Wetzel’s life. He understood them intimately, and profoundly respected them. He foresaw, many years ago, what is now coming to pass: “The ruthless waste and inefficient use and management of fresh waters will haunt our society as the single most pervasive problem of the 21st century. We simply cannot continue to ignore that water is an economic part of everything we do, make, use - water must be so valued.”

His other great passion was his family—Carol, his wife of 45 years; his four children, Paul, Pam, Tim, and Kristy; and nine grandchildren. Carol describes him as “truly my soul mate.” She often accompanied her husband on his travels, and those who saw them together noted a sense of deep companionship and happiness quietly conveyed through their interactions. His children recall his guiding presence throughout their lives. “Our Dad told us that we could be anything we wanted to be, as long as we did our very best.”

Dr. Wetzel’s parents immigrated to the United States from Germany before he was born, and as a small child he learned German before he learned English. He was proficient in reading six languages, and loved to create paintings of the lakes and streams he studied.

Dr. Wetzel’s definitive treatise on freshwater ecosystems evolved through three editions. He would often smile when describing the first and second editions, explaining that he had asked several of his students to “help him translate his writing into English.” It took him nearly 17 years to write the third edition, Limnology - Lake and River Ecosystems, which he completed four years before the end of his life. Of all of his prolific writings, this is his masterpiece. It will stand as the seminal treatise on freshwater ecosystems for many years to come. The treatise is a remarkable synthesis, unparalleled in this field. The writing is powerful. One comes away from this book palpably feeling the breadth of Dr. Wetzel’s knowledge, and awe-inspired by his ability to weave seemingly unrelated, detailed information and make freshwater ecosystems come alive, in all of their wonderful complexity. The writing is also powerful because he had decided to break the mold of “dry scientific presentation.” His writing is filled with a quiet passion, and a deep concern for the future of this world because of the general, progressive degradation of water quality and the careless misuse of water resources that he had seen in all of his travels. The list of awards for his outstanding scientific contributions, including the most prestigious awards in his field, stand in tribute to his integrity. Throughout his life Dr. Wetzel seemed unchanged by all the recognition. In the five-month battle he lost with lung cancer, hundreds of letters and calls poured in from people all over the world, who recounted the many special ways in which he changed their lives for the better. Young students, school teachers, bus drivers, janitors, as well as friends and colleagues in science, all expressed affection, concern, and gratitude for his having sincerely cared about their lives, and for his kindness in so many helpful actions.

We have lost a giant in aquatic science, whose many contributions will influence the field throughout this century. His legacy extends, as well, to the many people whose lives he touched. Dr. Robert Wetzel left this world much richer from the pathway he blazed through it.


This profile was written by Gene E. Likens and JoAnn Burkholder.

Page revised: 3 March 2014

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