In memoriam: Richard Levins, ecologist, biomathematician, and philosopher of science

Richard Levins
Richard Levins

January 22, 2016 — Richard Levins, John Rock Professor of Population Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, died January 19, 2016 at 85. He was known throughout his lengthy career for his ability to make connections between seemingly disparate topics such as biology and political theory. An ex-tropical farmer turned ecologist, biomathematician, and philosopher of science, Levins described the subject matter he focused on as “looking at the whole.”

Colleagues and former students organized a symposium last May to mark Levins’ 85th birthday and honor a career that included 40 years at Harvard Chan School. Read tributes to Levins on the symposium’s website.

In the early 1990s, Levins and others formed the Harvard Working Group on New and Resurgent Diseases. Their work showed that alarming new infections had sprung from changes in the environment, either natural or caused by humans.

His research had the goal of making the obscure obvious by finding ways to visualize complex phenomena. Recent work examined the variability of health outcomes as an indicator of vulnerability to multiple non-specific stressors in human communities.

Levins was a member of the Board of Directors of OXFAM-America and former chair of their subcommittee on Latin America and the Caribbean. Working from a critique of the industrial-commercial pathway of development, he promoted alternative development pathways that emphasized economic viability with equity, ecological and social sustainability, and empowerment of the dispossessed. As part of the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group, he helped to develop modern agroecology, concentrating on whole-system approaches to gentle pest management.

He studied plant breeding and mathematics at Cornell University, farmed in Puerto Rico, and in 1965 obtained his doctorate in zoology from Columbia University. He taught at the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Chicago before joining the Harvard Chan School.

Levins was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was the recipient of multiple honors as a pioneer of the ecology movement. He is survived by his children Aurora, Ricardo, and Alejandro. His wife Rosario Morales died in 2011.

Learn more

Finding truth in ‘the whole’ (Harvard Chan School News)

Dialectics of Disease (Harvard Public Health Review)