Stony Brook professor Lawrence Slobodkin dies at 81
Lawrence B. Slobodkin, founding chairman of Stony Brook University's Department of Ecology and Evolution and a key figure in the field's development as a modern science, died Saturday after a long illness. He was 81.
The Old Field resident was remembered this week as a trailblazing scientist, a quirky and inspirational professor, and an admired friend known for his quick humor and deep engagement with the arts, Jewish studies, and progressive politics.
He loved good food, single malt Scotch and lively dinner parties hosted with his wife of 57 years, Tamara, a musician. She survives him along with their 55-year-old twin sons, Nathan of Bangor, Maine, and David, of Chicago, and daughter Naomi, 52, of Setauket.
"It takes a lot of different people to describe Larry Slobodkin," said Douglas Futuyma, distinguished professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook who studied under Slobodkin at the University of Michigan before joining him at Stony Brook. "He was extraordinarily intelligent, quick and creative in his thinking . . . and one of the funniest people I knew."
Slobodkin, he said, helped advance the study of ecosystems from a descriptive science to one based on conceptual questions and hypotheses within a more mathematical framework. He furthered the ideas of the field's seminal thinker, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, under whom he'd studied at Yale before getting his doctorate in 1951 at the age of 23.
With two colleagues at the University of Michigan, he wrote a three-page paper in 1960 that "must be the most frequently cited paper in the entire field of ecology to this day," said Futuyma.
Slobodkin began teaching at Michigan in 1953 and left in 1968 to become founding chairman of the department at Stony Brook. He taught until 1999. The last of his three books, "A Citizen's Guide to Ecology (Oxford University Press), was published in 2003.
He was born in the Bronx on June 22, 1928, to Louis and Florence Slobodkin - he a well-known sculptor and children's book illustrator, she a writer. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, he went on to Bethany College in West Virginia and Yale University.
As a teacher, Futuyma said, Slobodkin's wide-ranging intellect and nonlinear references and analogies proved confusing to some students and inspiring to others. Winner of many professional awards and honors, he mentored numerous doctoral candidates, conducted research and taught in Israel, Italy and at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod.
Jane Yahil, a senior academic administrator at Stony Brook and a friend of 25 years, said the breadth of his intellect stood out, noting he was "one of the most colorful personalities I've ever seen."
With his mane of white hair and bushy white eyebrows and beard, bulky form, deep voice and twinkling eyes, she said, "he looked like Father Christmas . . . When he was in a room you noticed him and probably only him."
He also fit the classic conception of the rumpled professor with thick glasses and a book-lined office piled high with papers.
He was also active in the campus Hillel Center and a nurturing collector of friends. "Once he met you, he was quite likely to bring you home," said Rabbi Howard Hoffman of the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station, where Slobodkin's funeral service took place Monday.
Survivors also include a brother, Michael of Givatayim, Israel, and two grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Slobodkin Fund of the Stony Brook Foundation for graduate student research.