Celebrating the life of David Schindler

The University of Alberta community mourns the loss of the world-renowned ecologist and environmentalist, and honours his lasting achievements as a scientist and advocate.


U of A ecology professor emeritus David Schindler was renowned for his groundbreaking research on the environmental consequences of industry, his mentorship of generations of students and his unwavering advocacy for water safety and sustainability. (Photo: John Ulan)

The University of Alberta is mourning the loss of ecology professor emeritus David Schindler, a devoted family man, friend and mentor, and one of the world’s strongest and most respected voices addressing one of the planet’s most pressing issues—ensuring water safety and sustainability. Schindler was 80.

Born August 3, 1940, in Fargo, North Dakota, the future water environmentalist spent his earliest years growing up in Minnesota Lake, Minnesota, on his grandparents’ farm, which had no electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating or even any gas-powered machines. 

He would attend North Dakota State University in 1958 with aspirations of studying engineering physics. However, he was inspired to switch to ecology that same year after reading The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants by Charles Elton, which describes how modern transportation moves pests among continents, often freeing them to multiply rapidly in their new-found land.

Schindler made his way to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he earned his PhD in ecology in 1966. After a two-year posting at Trent University, Schindler was made the founding director of the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario, where he spent two decades running ecosystem-scale experiments.

His innovative work on entire lakes proved that pollutants such as phosphate-based detergents and fertilizers were leading to the destruction of freshwater bodies in Canada. Despite fierce resistance, his findings and his advocacy led to the North America-wide banning of phosphates in detergents. He then went on to conduct groundbreaking and equally important research into the effects of acid rain and climate change on the health and biodiversity of the environment.

In 1989, Schindler moved from Ontario to the U of A’s Faculty of Science to take up the role of Killam Memorial Chair. Here, he would spend the next quarter-century assessing and relaying the often uncomfortable environmental implications of industry until his retirement in 2013.

His studies into freshwater shortages and the effects of climate disruption on Canada's alpine and northern boreal ecosystems guided policy not only in the province, but across the country and around the world.

As a mentor and role model for the generations of students he trained, Schindler emphasized the importance of thinking about the broader social, political and economic contexts of environmental studies. That emphasis started at home. His son, Daniel, a professor at the University of Washington, is considered one of the top salmon experts in the world.

For his patience and persistence in advancing scientific evidence to influence policy, Schindler earned numerous national and international awards, including the SETAC Rachel Carson Award, the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal, the first Stockholm Water Prize, the Volvo Environmental Prize and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. 

Schindler was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2004 and was named to the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2008. He was a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Royal Society of Canada and the Royal Society (UK), and an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In 2020, Schindler was named one of the 90 greatest Canadian explorers of all time by Canadian Geographic.

Michael Caldwell, who was the chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at the end of Schindler’s tenure, remembers his friend whose honesty was equalled only by his fearlessness.

“You throw Dave's personality into what he did as a scientist and it would have been abundantly clear to anyone that he was a fearless advocate for the environment, for how human beings live in it and how we affect it,” said Caldwell.

“His respect from his peers is pretty clear. His science was outstandingly recognized and his advocacy was a reflection of who he was.”

Longtime U of A colleague and friend Mark Boyce, professor of ecology and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries & Wildlife, remembers annual salmon fishing trips with Schindler near Prince Rupert, B.C., floating on Boyce’s boat talking about life and the universe.

“He was an avid dog musher. I think he had 90 dogs at one point and he would lament the effects of climate change interfering with his dogs.”

Boyce added what made Schindler one of the greats was his capacity for communicating the significance of science to governments and the public alike.

“His research on the effects of phosphorus on lakes in the experimental lakes program was profound, and the ramifications of his research to the broader public and the environment are still relevant.

"I will miss him."

A call to action

When receiving a U of A honorary degree in 2014 from his adopted home in Edmonton, Schindler cut straight to his passion: the environment.

“Scientific messengers who bear unwelcome but irrefutable messages are always subjected to ad hominem attacks by those who believe that our endeavours must always be viewed with rose-coloured glasses,” he said. “This must change.”

He advocated for new models for success based on genuine progress rather than monetary wealth, or even on happiness instead of money, but most of all he advocated for water.

“Water, my specialty, is perhaps the best index of what is happening, the canary in Earth’s coal mine,” he told the group of emerging scientists.

“In identifying the limits of the Earth and its biogeochemical cycles and ecosystems, my generation of scientists has made a good start,” he said.

“It will be up to your generation to enhance this knowledge and use what you learn to protect the planet on which we and other species depend. We have done our best to educate you well for this. When I look at this sea of eager and intelligent faces, I am confident that you are up to the task.”

David Schindler himself saw the importance of supporting our students and had created an endowment to fund the David Schindler Undergraduate Scholarship in Environmental Science. This fund supports a fourth-year undergraduate student in an honors or specialization program who has demonstrated interest in graduate studies in environmental science. An online giving page has been set up for those who are wishing to support Dr. Schindler’s award in his memory.