Influence of My Academic Father

Professor David Martyn Smith

Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Professor Smith was the biggest influence on my way of thinking and my scientific approach. I was fascinated by his clarity of thinking from the first time I met him. I took courses under him and studied the way he thought—and learned how to think similarly.

I did not realize it until decades later when my wife was studying “systems” that Professor Smith was actually thinking in terms of “complex systems,” being developed by physicists and others. Ironically, I don’t think Professor Smith ever communicated with those developers or realized that he was thinking in terms of complex systems.

The thought process of Professor Smith was NOT to think of ecosystems as “simple systems” with “stocks and flow” of different ecological “seres” which different plant communities move among in a deterministic pattern—such a pioneer, mid-seral, and climax. Rather, individual plants can be considered as “agents” that behave in characteristic ways according to their species and the environment. Depending on the “initial conditions” (details of the environment and proximate plants) they are put in, they interact with other agents and form various patterns and variations on patterns known as “emergent properties.” Ernie Gould and Walter Lyford, scientists I later worked with at the Harvard Forest, thought similarly, possibly influenced by the research of Dr. Earl Stephens.

Much of what I learned from Professor Smith, and others, is incorporated in a book I wrote entitled Forest Stand Dynamics with a former student, Bruce Larson, as coauthor.

A second part of Professor Smith’s thinking was his concentration on analysis and objectivity, rather than charisma and emotion. He could be charismatic and delightful, but these were not bases for his teaching or decisions.

Another influence of Professor Smith involved my frustration with academia. Having worked with my father applying forestry science to “real world” situations, I was frustrated with the increasing specialization demanded of PhD students, and scientists in general. This specialization was preventing our making use of new findings. I told Professor Smith of my feeling of a need for generalists who could integrate among specializations. He agreed. As my career progressed, I was pleasantly surprised at how much can be learned by trying to integrate different scientific fields. The intersection of two scientific fields often identifies misconceptions and opportunities to make scientific breakthroughs. This need for integration later formed the basis of our Global Resources and the Environment book.


Professor Smith and I never published together. Professor Smith was reluctant to coauthor with his students because he felt it detracted from their accomplishment. In my case, he at first agreed to publish some papers with me (e.g., the Journal of Forestry paper of 1980). After waiting nearly a year for him to return a draft manuscript, I finally telephoned him. He quietly and politely told me: “Chad, I like you and admire your work; but, you and I have such different writing styles that we should never try to publish anything together now or in the future.”  And, we never did—although he always encouraged my work.