Dr. George Woodwell, pioneer in climate science and founder of Woodwell Climate Research Center, passes away at 95

George Woodwell stands at a podium speaking at an event under a tent

George Woodwell speaks to event attendees at the Woodwell Climate (then Woods Hole Research Center) summer gala in 2018.

photo by Lauren Owens Lambert

FALMOUTH, MA – WED, JUNE 19, 2024 – With deep sadness, Woodwell Climate Research Center announces the passing of Dr. George Masters Woodwell, a pioneer and visionary in the field of climate science, beloved family member, friend, and mentor, and Founder and Director Emeritus of our Center. He passed away on Tuesday, June 18, 2024 surrounded by his family. He was 95.

Woodwell dedicated his career to ecological research, and to uplifting science to inform critical global policy and urgently-needed solutions to some of the biggest environmental issues of the late twentieth century—making enormous contributions to the world through his work of scientific understanding, environmental sustainability, and climate stability.

George M. Woodwell

photo by Daniel Webb

At a time when the biological sciences were increasingly focused on the molecular and cellular level, Dr. Woodwell was steadfast in his belief that ecosystem-level understanding was critical. He started and led ecological research programs within the University of Maine, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the Marine Biological Laboratory.

He worked tirelessly to bring science into the public discourse. Based on his research demonstrating the damaging effects of the pesticide DDT, he was a strong scientific voice in the push to ban it. He conducted groundbreaking research on the ecological effects of nuclear radiation. Ultimately, he turned his attention to what was at the time known as “the carbon dioxide problem.” He provided prescience testimony at the first Congressional hearing on climate change in 1986, highlighting issues—the global ramifications of Arctic warming and the importance of forests in the climate system—that have been enduring pillars of climate research since.

George Woodwell sits at a desk

George Woodwell at his desk.


Dr. Woodwell also played an outsized role in building today’s ecosystem of science-based advocacy and policymaking, helping found preeminent environmental non-profits including Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Resources Institute. Additionally, Dr. Woodwell was a former chairman of the board of trustees of the World Wildlife Fund US, and former president of the Ecological Society of America.

He saw the need for international policy and governance to address climate change, guided by global scientific expertise, and played important roles in the creation of what became the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was recognized in 2007 with a Nobel Peace Prize, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—the treaty that has driven and guided international climate negotiations for more than thirty years.

In 1985, he founded the Woods Hole Research Center—renamed Woodwell Climate Research Center in his honor in 2020—as an independent organization dedicated to not only conducting essential climate research, but to harnessing it to inform public- and private-sector decision making at all levels of society. Dr. Woodwell led the Center for more than twenty years, was a mentor and friend to many of the Center’s staff, and remained a trusted advisor to Center leadership to the end.

woodwell campus with purple flowers

The Woodwell Climate Research Center campus.


“Our entire staff and community is deeply saddened by George’s passing, and our thoughts are with George’s many friends and his family today,” said Max Holmes, President of the Woodwell Climate Research Center. “What drew people to George was not just his intellect or foresight, but also his energy, wisdom, and sense of humor. His ability to sustain outrage and indignation at environmental destruction, while holding an abiding love of the natural world and a clear, positive vision of a better world for all was an inspiration for many.”

That vision was the subject of Dr. Woodwell’s final book, A World to Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision for a Plundered Planet, published in 2016. Over the course of his career, Dr. Woodwell has published more than 300 scientific papers and authored five books. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the 1996 Heinz Environmental Prize, the John H. Chafee Excellence in Environmental Affairs Award of 2000, and the Volvo Environment Prize of 2001.

Born on October 23, 1928 to Virginia Sellers Woodwell and Phillip McIntire Woodwell, Dr. Woodwell received his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College, his master’s degree and doctorate in botany from Duke University, and served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy from 1950 to 1953. He was an avid sailor, and loved his family’s farm and sawmill in Maine.

He is survived by his wife, Katharine Rondthaler Woodwell, his children and their spouses Caroline Woodwell (Chris DeForest), Marjorie Woodwell (Woody Swan), Jane Woodwell (Chris Soper), John Woodwell (Marie Hull), and his grandchildren Katharine Soper, David Soper, John DeForest, and Robert DeForest.

The family welcomes gifts in Woodwell’s memory made to the George M. Woodwell Endowment Fund at Woodwell Climate Research Center. A remembrance service will be held at the Center in Falmouth, MA in coming weeks; details to follow.