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In Memoriam: Ken Cummins

Ken Cummins (March 28, 1933 – June 8, 2023)

Obituary and tribute by Rich Merritt

Dr. Kenneth W. Cummins passed away at the age of 90 on Thursday, June 8, 2023 in San Francisco, CA as a result of surgery complications. Although Ken dealt with some mobility issues, he was energetic and his mind was as sharp as it was in his prime. 

Ken was born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 28, 1933, to Mary Grace and Charles Cummins. He is survived by his twin sons, Mike and Steve, who live in California, and his younger son, Paul, who lives in Florida. He is also survived by his wife of 30 years, Dr. Peggy Wilzbach, who also resides in Florida. 

Ken obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, and went on to complete a Masters in Fisheries and a PhD in Zoology (Limnology) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  

After obtaining his PhD, Ken held several faculty positions during his career. He was an exceptional research and teaching faculty member and was well-liked wherever he went. He started out as an Assistant Professor of Biology at Northwestern University from 1961-62. In 1962, he took an Assistant Professor position in Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh and remained there until 1968. He served as Associate Professor (1968-72) at Michigan State University in the Department of Entomology and Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and resided at the Kellogg Biological Station, Hickory Corners, MI. He was promoted to Professor in 1972 and remained at MSU until 1978. From 1978-1984, he held the position of Professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department of Entomology at Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, where he was also a member of the well-known Stream Team. From 1984-89, Ken was Professor at the Appalachian Environmental Laboratory, Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies, University of Maryland, Frostburg, MD, and from 1989-1993 he was Professor of Biological Sciences and Director at the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, Linesville, PA. In 1994, he became a Distinguished Scientist for the Ecosystem Restoration Department, South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach and Sanibel, FL. In 1999 until 2011, he served as Senior Advisory Scientist with the California Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and as Adjunct Professor, Fisheries Biology Department, California Polytechnic State University, Humboldt, in Arcata, CA. During that time at Humboldt, he also served as Chair and Co-Director of the Institute for River Ecosystems. He retired in 2011 from Humboldt but still maintained his adjunct emeritus professor status at Humboldt and Michigan State University. 

Ken was an internationally known icon in the structure and function of freshwater ecosystems, and a humble man. His macroinvertebrate Functional Feeding Group (FFG) procedure for evaluating stream ecosystem conditions has been used widely since its inception in the 70s, along with his major publication appearing in the Annual Rev. of Entomology (1973) entitled, “Trophic Relations of Aquatic Insects”. This was followed by his citation classic in BioScience in 1974 on the “Structure and Function of Stream Ecosystems.” His second citation classic on this topic was published in the Ann. Rev. of Ecology and Systematics with his close friend and colleague, Dr. Mike Klug, entitled, “Feeding Ecology of Stream Invertebrates.” In 1980, along with 4 other notable scientists, they published a third citation classic paper on The River Continuum Concept (RCC) in the Can. J. Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. The RCC describes the entire river system as a continuously integrating series of physical gradients and associated biotic adjustments as the river flows from headwater to mouth. Over time, this theory has been tested by research scientists in many countries throughout the world.

Ken had over 250 publications in various peer reviewed journals, books and book chapters, and mentored 25 graduate students. He has received numerous awards, including the Award of Excellence in Benthic Science (NABS), and was elected as a Fellow in both the Society of Freshwater Science (SFS) and in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He served as an advisor for many national and international committees throughout his career, including the WHO West Africa Onchocerciasis (River Blindness) Committee, the EPA Science Advisory Board, a blue ribbon Governor-appointed panel on the Relative Effects of Forest Practices on Anadromous Fish Runs in Western Oregon, and as the national representative in the Conservation and Management of Running Waters Working Group of the International Society of Theoretical and Applied Limnology.

Rich Merritt, Ken’s longtime friend and colleague, shared a reminiscence on his years collaborating with Ken:

In 1978, Ken and I edited and published a “small” manual on aquatic insects of North America for the aquatic entomology class at MSU, since the only one available at that time was Usinger’s Aquatic Insects of California. What started small got a lot larger, and after three editions of the book, we asked our good friend and colleague, Dr. Marty Berg at Loyola University Chicago, to join us in the 4th edition in 2008. The most recent 5th edition, also with Marty as a co-editor, came out in 2019. Although the book has been widely used to key out and identify aquatic insects, there is a vast amount of ecological information with references contained within the tables at the end of each chapter. This idea was created and formatted by Ken alone in our first edition, and the 5th edition has close to 7,000 references in the bibliography. Ken and I had a good understanding while working with each other on this book for over 48 years. Ken told me once that if I didn’t push him to get each edition finished, the book would never have been published. I responded that if it wasn’t for him, we would have never had a book in the first place! He was the conceptualizer and I was the finisher. 

Ken and I served on graduate student and faculty committees together, wrote papers, chapters and edited a book together, and taught classes in different countries together. During this time I enjoyed his humor tremendously, which included telling bad jokes and writing Ogden Nash-style poems often presented at the end of his research talks. Ken’s passion was fly fishing, and he was a very good fly angler at that. If he was not fishing with his boys in Yellowstone National Park, he was fishing for Coho Salmon with his close friend Gordie Reeves in the Copper River Delta, Alaska.

I will close this tribute with the last poem Ken wrote. He had asked me to read it at the SFS meeting in Grand Rapids in 2022. At this meeting, we held a gathering for all the authors of our book to thank them for their contributions in the most recent edition. In my opinion, this poem summarizes Ken’s life and passion for his research interests in a nutshell. I will dearly miss my best friend Kenny of 50 years, but his legacy in the field of aquatic ecology will live on for many years to come.  

I stand before you old and decrepit
But finally I have learned to accept it

My Dad really wanted me to sell retirement insurance,
Even my Mom knew that would take massive endurance

I'm grateful my parents did not s*#& a brick,
When it was stream ecology that I did pick

As professor I enjoyed a long career that was grand,
At Oregon State, Northwestern, MSU, Pitt and Maryland

In all of these positions I was part of a team,
Doing field research this way was always my dream

River Continuum,Vannote, Minshall, Sedell, Cushing and Me,
And for several years it cost NSF about a million and three

On the Science Advisory Panel of EP and A
Was me and a bunch of Doctors, what can I say!

The CALFED Program on the San Francisco Bay,
Ag versus salmon water was the game of the day

And many team projects with my best friend Rich Merritt
I only wish you all had been there to share it!

I have a concern; if I didn’t warn you I’d be remiss,
The deep concern I feel goes something like this!

I fear for the study of morpho-behavioral Aquatic Insect Ecology
An endeavor I will always defend without apology

Please don’t quit collecting aquatic insects from across the nation
Don’t squash ‘em and code ‘em and go on vacation!

Thanks so much, Ken Cummins.