Robert Whittaker

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Robert Harding Whittaker
Born (1920-12-27)December 27, 1920
Wichita, Kansas, US
Died October 20, 1980(1980-10-20) (aged 59)
Ithaca, New York, USA
Nationality United States
Alma mater University of Illinois
Known for gradient theory in ecology
five-kingdom system
Awards Mayhew Prize (2002)
Scientific career
Fields Ecology
Institutions Cornell University

Robert Harding Whittaker (December 27, 1920 – October 20, 1980) was a distinguished American plant ecologist, active in the 1950s to the 1970s. He was the first to propose the five-kingdom of organisms taxonomic classification of the world's biota into the Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, and Monera in 1969.[1][2] He also proposed the Whittaker Biome Classification, which categorized biome-types upon two abiotic factors: temperature and precipitation.

Whittaker was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1974, received the Ecological Society of America's Eminent Ecologist Award in 1981, and was otherwise widely recognized and honored. He collaborated with many other ecologists including George Woodwell (Dartmouth), W. A. Niering, F. H. Bormann (Yale) and G. E. Likens (Cornell), and was particularly active in cultivating international collaborations.

Early life[edit]

Born in Wichita, Kansas, he obtained a B.A. at Washburn Municipal College (now Washburn University) in Topeka, Kansas, and, following military service, his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois.


He held teaching and research positions at Washington State College in Hanford, Washington, the Hanford National Laboratories (where he pioneered use of radioactive tracers in ecosystem studies), Brooklyn College, University of California, Irvine, and, finally Cornell University.

Extremely productive, Whittaker was a leading proponent and developer of gradient analysis to address questions in plant community ecology. He provided strong empirical evidence against some ideas of vegetation development advocated by Frederic Clements. Whittaker was most active in the areas of plant community analysis, succession, and productivity. "During his lifetime Whittaker was a major innovator of methodologies of community analysis and a leader in marshaling field data to document patterns in the composition, productivity and diversity of land plant communities."[3] Thus Whittaker was innovative in both empirical data sampling techniques as well as synthesizing more holistic theories.

Ph.D. Students[edit]

Ecologists completing Ph.D.s under Whittaker include Walter Westman, Robert Peet (now at University of North Carolina), Susan Bratton (now at Baylor University), Thomas Wentworth (now at North Carolina State University), Owen Sholes (now at Assumption College), Mark Wilson (now at Oregon State University), Linda Olsvig-Whittaker (now at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority) and Kerry Woods (now at Bennington College).


Whittaker married biochemist Clara Buehl (then a coworker at Hanford Laboratories) in 1952. Their children are John Whittaker (b. 1953, now a Professor of Anthropology at Grinnell College), Paul Whittaker (b. 1955, formerly an ecologist/entomologist; now an abstract artist and photographer in Evanston, Illinois) and Carl Whittaker (b. 1957, a natural history illustrator and professional chef in Ithaca, New York).

Clara was diagnosed with cancer in 1972; her health deteriorated and she died December 31, 1976. Whittaker married graduate student Linda Olsvig in 1979, but was himself diagnosed with lung cancer; he died October 20, 1980.


  • Robert H. Whittaker Communities and Ecosystems, Macmillan, 1975. ISBN 0-02-427390-2
  • Robert H. Whittaker(Ed), Classification of Plant Communities, 1978 (Handbook of Vegetation Science), Kluwer Academic Publishers, ISBN 90-6193-566-0