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Evelyn Chrystalla ‘E.C.’ Pielou. © Sharon Niscak
Evelyn Chrystalla ‘E.C.’ Pielou. © Sharon Niscak

Evelyn Chrystalla ‘E.C.’ Pielou (February 20, 1924 – July 16, 2016) – a towering figure in ecology – was a key pioneer in the incorporation of statistical rigor into biogeography and ecology. She devised many important statistical hypotheses tests for spatial arrangements and patterns ranging in scale from individual plants in a field through to elevational zonation of vegetation to ranges of groups of species distributed over regional through to continental-scale ranges. Her research has provided the impetus for biogeographical analyses for generations.

She published ten books, including several long after her formal retirement in 1988. Her book Biogeography (1979) is a masterpiece. It covers historical biogeography (including inferences from cladograms, which were just beginning to be a hot topic at that time) and ecological biogeography with keen insight and treats topics like long-distance dispersal (that had largely been the subject of just-so stories) with her characteristic statistical rigor. Her books on mathematical ecology have a strong emphasis on models of spatial pattern and ways to estimate biodiversity, and her methods – including the famous Pielou‘s evenness index – are still widely used.

Overcoming Obstacles

Pielou’s book Biogeography was one of the first to use cladograms. © Michelle Spaulding, Maureen A. O'Leary, John Gatesy
Pielou’s book Biogeography was one of the first to use cladograms. © Michelle Spaulding, Maureen A. O’Leary, John Gatesy

There is much more to be said about Chris (as she was often called) Pielou than her immense scientific contributions, which have been widely recognized. She did all this research during a period when women scientists, especially in mathematical and statistical fields, were dealing with overt and subtle bias in many forms. In spite of this, she managed to have a remarkably productive and influential career while working initially largely in isolation and raising her family. During World War II, Chris served in the British navy (where she met her future husband, D.P. Pielou – a specialist in insects and plants), and in 1951 she received her bachelor’s degree in botany at the University of London.

Over the next decade, working largely at home and with no formal supervision, she published several papers on the statistics of biological patterns alongside raising three children. From these she submitted a doctoral thesis to the University of London, and was awarded her degree in 1962. For the next six years she worked as a research scientist for the Canadian government (Departments of Forestry and Agriculture), publishing papers of great biogeographical significance. Some of her most important papers focused on the determination whether a pattern is or is not random and on what can be deduced from spatial co-occurrence data of groups of species.

It took until 1968 for Chris to start her first ‘regular’ academic position, as a full professor at Queen’s University (Canada). She subsequently accepted positions as a professor at Dalhousie University (where she published her book Biogeography) and finally at the University of Lethbridge. Throughout this period, Chris married fieldwork with intense publication of both theoretical and data-rich papers. For instance, her series of publications on seaweed ranges and zonation arose directly from field observations in Nova Scotia, and her papers on species co-occurrence patterns co-published with her husband arose from field data on arthropods. Chris retired to British Columbia in 1988… However, “retirement” consisted of writing five books and leading tours (including to the Arctic) as a naturalist!

Well-Deserved Recognition

Chris Pielou’s deserves to always be remembered as one of the most accomplished scientists of the 20th century. You only need to look at the long section on Chris Pielou (p. 22-23) in Jean Langenheim’s “Early history and progress of women ecologists: Emphasis upon research contributions” or Jacquelyn Gill’s wonderful tribute to recognise the additional significance of her research career.

Pielou published a series of papers on seaweed ranges and zonation. © Anna Barnett
Pielou published a series of papers on seaweed ranges and zonation. © Anna Barnett

Chris was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and received many awards throughout her life: the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America (1986), the Distinguished Statistical Ecologist Award of the International Congress of Ecology (1990), and an Honorary LLD from Dalhousie University (1993) to name just a few. She was a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Honorary Life Member of the British Ecological Society. The Ecological Society of America even named a graduate student award in the Statistical Ecology Section in her honour.

Chris Pielou’s contributions to ecology and to the advancement of women in academia should not be underestimated. To quote from Langenheim, “The research of EC Pielou represents the emergence of a woman working in an area that continues to be dominated by men. In fact, she has a novel professional history that displays an amazing sense of self-motivation.” From her ability to to produce such wonderful work in her early career without supervision or formal guidance to her remarkably productive retirement, Evelyn Chrystalla Pielou should stand as an inspiration to everyone. She was a magnificent member of the academic community and she is dearly missed.