Mason mourns the loss of Tom Lovejoy, lifelong climate crusader

Tom Lovejoy smiles in a portrait photo, wearing a bow tie and sportcoat
Tom Lovejoy. Photo provided

George Mason University Professor Thomas Lovejoy, one of the world’s leading conservation biologists, died Saturday, December 25. He was 80 years old.

Often referred to as the “godfather of biodiversity,” Lovejoy enjoyed a career that spanned more than 50 years, carrying him all over the globe as a conservation champion. The first to use the term “biodiversity,” Lovejoy was among the world’s foremost experts on biodiversity within the Amazon.

Lovejoy joined Mason’s College of Science in 2010, serving as a University Professor within the Department of Environmental Science and Policy and scientific director for Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth.

“Dr. Lovejoy was a giant among leaders in environmental stewardship. His loss is devastating to George Mason University, humanity, and the planet itself,” said George Mason President Gregory Washington. “Nicknamed ‘the Godfather of Biodiversity,’ Dr. Lovejoy was also a good and decent person, whom I will miss very much.”

Lovejoy was the Founder and President of the non-profit Amazon Biodiversity Center and the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project in the central Amazon (with INPA, Brazil’s National Institute of Amazon Research). He served on science and environmental councils under the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations and as Science Envoy for Presidents Obama and Biden. He was also a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation.

 “An internationally respected climate scientist, Professor Lovejoy focused on the critical importance of sustainability, including many consequential contributions to our understanding of climate change, and employed a cross-disciplinary approach to finding solutions to the greatest and grandest challenges of this era,” said Provost and Executive Vice President Mark R. Ginsberg.

Lovejoy was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in April 2021, joining an elite group of scholars recognized for their contributions to science and research. In 2018 he was recognized with Mason’s Beck Presidential Medal for Excellence in Research and Scholarship for his outstanding research and mentorship of the next generation of environmental science and policy leaders, and in 2019 he was named one of Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists, honored for globally significant contributions to the field of science.

Lovejoy enjoyed a decades-long association with the National Geographic Society, since receiving his first grant to study the ecology of rainforest birds in the Amazon in 1971.  He also served as a member of the Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, Ocean Restoration Advisory Council; the chair of the Big Cats Initiatives Grants Committee and the Advisory Committee of the Great Energy Challenge; and as a scientific advisor to the Society’s Chief Scientist and its Perpetual Planet Expeditions.

“To know Tom was to know an extraordinary scientist, professor, advisor, and unyielding champion for our planet,” said Jill Tiefenthaler, Chief Executive Officer of National Geographic in an online statement. “He was also a consummate connector, helping bring people and organizations together to preserve and protect some of our most fragile ecosystems and cornerstone species.”

In 2019, he was selected as a National Geographic Explorer at Large, a title he held until his passing.

As an environmental scientist coming of age intellectually in the mid-1980s, I knew of Tom Lovejoy long before coming to Mason. His work was very influential on my interest on the hydrology of tropical ecosystems…” said Mason College of Science Dean Fernando Miralles Wilhelm. “I remember meeting him in person at a conference a few years ago, and what impressed me the most was his modesty; such a humble individual who was a giant of science and has impacted the work of so many others.”