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John Todd (biologist)

This article is about the biologist working in the field of ecological design. For the biologist working on diabetes, see John A. Todd (biologist).
For other people of the same name, see John Todd (disambiguation).

John Todd (born 1939) is a biologist working in what is sometimes considered the general field of ecological design, in that his ideas often involve applications that become the basis of alternative technologies. His principal professional interests have included solving problems of food production and waste-water processing. As an author, he has presented the outcome of the work that he and colleagues have undertaken in a series of books, as well as in the requisite scientific papers.


Todd was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1939. He earned his B.Sc. (1961) in agriculture and his M.Sc. (1963) in parasitology and tropical medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, after which he did doctoral work in fisheries and oceanography at the University of Michigan. His early professional interest, involving the behavioral ecology of fish, was the basis of his work as an assistant professor of ethology at San Diego State University (1968-1970), after which he joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, as an assistant scientist.

Todd's wife, Nancy Jack Todd, trained as a dancer and is a skilled writer and editor. She has edited and added introductions to many of John Todd's books, and co-written the most recent. Back in the Woods Hole days, John had begun to develop his ideas about how complicated biological food chains worked, and in their conversations Nancy wondered if ecological concepts could serve people's needs. She suggested science needed "a human face."

Ecological research

In 1969 the Todds co-founded the New Alchemy Institute to do both fundamental research into aspects of biology and disciplines as well as to apply biological science to technology. Todd and colleagues have designed miniature ecosystems, largely self-perpetuating, which bring ecological principles into service of human requirements. Besides designing and prototyping food-producing systems and approaches for communities of people, this work has resulted in innovative new approaches to processing sewage and industrial waste water. Todd's approach has involved applications of micro-organisms, fish, and plants (phytoremediation).

In 1974 Todd returned to his native Canada to design and build "An ARK for P.E.I." at Spry Point on Prince Edward Island, on contract to the Federal government. When completed in 1976, the ARK had become a test bed of many of the principles that became the "living machine", as well as a number of trailblazing and now established green or sustainable elements: solar orientation, solar collectors, wind energy, thermal storage, and composting toilet. Living Machine is now a registered trademark owned by Dharma Group, LC in Charlottesville, Virginia, which also owns the original patents for the system.


Todd and colleagues developed what they called "living machines". The system they developed is an ecologically engineered technology developed to restore, conserve, or remediate sewage or other polluted water, by replicating and accelerating the natural purification processes of streams, ponds and marshes. In practical application, a living machine is a self-contained treatment system designed to treat a specific waste stream using the principles of ecological engineering. It does this by using diverse communities of bacteria and other microorganisms, algae, plants, trees, snails, fish and other living creatures.


John Todd developed a greenhouse waste treatment plant in Cape Cod that yields clean water from sewage. Bacteria consume the organic sewage and turn ammonia into nitrates. The nitrates are used as food for algae and fertilizer for duckweed. Zooplankton and snails consume the algae. Fish eat the zooplankton. Floating plants soak up the leftovers. Bulrushes, cattails, and water hyacinths render the toxins harmless. Trees absorb heavy metals. The byproducts are decorative plants and minnows, both of which are sold. The minnows are sold as bait fish. Aquatic plants, raised in the system's open-air lagoons for sewer treatment, are used in California, Florida, and Mississippi. Todd's "living machine" system makes it possible to do all this in the colder northern climates. The town of Harwich, Massachusetts began using Todd's system in 1990.


Todd served as the New Alchemy Institute's President until 1981. In 1980, he co-founded Ocean Arks International. He also co-founded Living Technologies Inc., an ecological design, engineering, and construction firm in Burlington, Vermont. From 1999 he has been Research Professor & Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Vermont.

While Todd has pursued much of his work with the developing world in mind, applications for the benefit of industrialized and affluent societies have been part and parcel.

John Todd won The Buckminster Fuller Challenge in 2008.[1] Among other awards Dr. Todd has received, in 1994, the Daimler-Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design, in 1996, the Environmental Merit Award (from the US Environmental Protection Agency), in 1998, the Bioneers Lifetime Achievement Award. Also in 1998, he and Nancy Jack Todd together received the Lindbergh Award in recognition of their work in technology and the environment and are Fellows of the Findhorn Foundation. Todd was profiled in Inventing Modern America, published by the Lemelson-MIT Program for Invention and Innovation, in which the story of the development of his innovative ecological waste treatment systems is highlighted.


Authored or co-authored by John Todd:

  • The Village as Solar Ecology (1980)
  • Tomorrow is Our Permanent Address (1980)
  • Reinhabiting Cities & Towns: Designing for Sustainability (1981)
  • Bioshelters, Ocean Arks, City Farming: Ecology as the Basis of Design (1984)
  • From Eco-cities to Living Machines (1994)

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