Generalitat de Cataluña

Premi Ramon Margalef
Ramon Margalef
Ramon Margalef López died on Sunday 23 May 2004 in Barcelona, his hometown. He was 85 years old. He was one of the founding fathers of modern ecology and one of the most distinguished Spanish scientists of the twentieth century. His contributions have been extremely fertile in fields as diverse as limnology, oceanography, and theoretical ecology. We owe to him the introduction of information theory to the study of ecological diversity, arguably one of the major inflection points in the history of ecological thinking.

Margalef was born in Barcelona in 1919. His education was interrupted by the Spanish civil war in 1938, when he was recruited by the Republican army. After Franco's victory he was forced to do three more years of military service. He then worked as a messenger in Barcelona's Botanical Institute, and as an insurance clerk until, thanks to the help of several scientific personalities of the time who appreciated his intellectual potential, he got a scholarship and managed to obtain his BSc from the Universitat de Barcelona (1949). After finishing his PhD only two years later, he started to work in the recently created Institute for Fisheries Investigation in Barcelona, an institution he later presided (1965 to 1967). In 1967 he became Spain's first professor of ecology, a position he held at the Universitat de Barcelona until his retirement twenty years later. As is to be expected in a man gifted with a prodigious curiosity, his involvement in active research never vanished, and he continued to visit his tiny office in the Ecology Department of the Universitat de Barcelona until a few weeks before his death.

It is difficult to summarize Margalef's scientific achievements in a few sentences. He authored over 400 scientific papers and books. His first studies, published mostly in Spanish in the 1940s and 1950s, focused on the organization of planktonic communities in continental and oceanic waters. It is not until the late 1950s, with the translation into English of his inaugural lecture as a member of the Barcelona Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences "Information Theory in Ecology", that he gained a worldwide audience. Another groundbreaking article, "On certain unifying principles in ecology", published in American Naturalist in 1963, and his book "Perspectives in Ecological Theory" (1968), based on his guest lectures at the University of Chicago, consolidated him as one of the leading thinkers of modern ecology. Overall, his studies have greatly contributed to our current understanding of the spatiotemporal structure of ecosystems, the relationship between diversity, biodiversity, stability and connectivity, the role of external energy in biological productivity, and the interplay between ecological succession and evolution. Many of his views are summarized in the book "Our Biosphere" (1997).

Alongside his research activity, his achievements in ecology education have been also extraordinary. In his lectures at the Universitat de Barcelona, or in the numerous invited courses and seminars elsewhere, he always promoted creative thinking and transmitted in a fresh and challenging fashion his views on how nature works, prompting students to "get out and discover nature" for themselves. His views were summarized in two monumental textbooks: "Ecología" (1974) and "Limnología" (1983). Undoubtedly, he shaped a whole generation of ecologists in Spain and beyond. He was honoured by several institutions around the world; the long list of distinctions awarded include the Prince Albert medal (France, 1972), the Huntsman Prize (Canada, 1980), the Ramon y Cajal Award (Spain, 1984), the Alexander von Humboldt Award (Germany, 1990), the Excellence in Ecology Prize (Germany, 1995), the CSIC Gold Medal (Spain, 2002) and all Catalonia's main public honours.

Ramon Margalef exemplified one of this rare cases in which an outstanding intellect coexists with equally exceptional personal qualities. The scope of his knowledge, his humane nature, his modesty, his honesty and his sense of humour gave him a human category well beyond his scientific qualities. Much is to be learned from his approach to science and to life in general, in which an insatiable, childlike curiosity sprang from the intimate pleasure he found in observing the world around him. Some of his views have proven to be wrong, but they have been always original and inspiring and, quite often, truly revolutionary. In a scientific world dominated by a reductionistic program he always was one of the few minds capable of seeing forests where most saw only the trees. He was also very much interested in the public appreciation of science and always advocated for the engagement of scientific rigour in environmental police. In that respect he defined himself as an "active pessimist". In his own words: "If God has put us on Earth, we have the right to make use of it but we might as well do so with a modicum of intelligence".

Jordi Martínez Vilalta (2004)

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