M. Gordon Wolman, 85

M. Gordon Wolman dies; professor a pioneer in river research

Dr. Gordon Wolman led the geography and environmental engineering department at Johns Hopkins.
Dr. Gordon Wolman led the geography and environmental engineering department at Johns Hopkins. (Chris Hartlove)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

M. Gordon Wolman, 85, a geography professor at Johns Hopkins University for more than 50 years, whose research provided fundamental insights into the nature of rivers, died Feb. 24 at his home in Baltimore of complications from multiple myeloma.

As a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1950s, he and colleague Luna Leopold published pioneering studies on how and why rivers change. With their emphasis on measuring rivers' characteristics, including depths and velocities and the size of river-bottom pebbles, they transformed geomorphology -- the study of landforms' evolution -- from a descriptive to a quantitative discipline, making it possible to predict how natural and human-caused perturbations might affect river channels. Their 1964 textbook, "Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology," co-written with John Miller, is considered a seminal work.

Known as "Reds" for his shock of carrot-colored hair, Dr. Wolman studied whether a river is shaped more by rare, catastrophic floods or everyday currents, eventually concluding that intermediate flows -- regular, once-a-year floods -- do most of the work in sculpting a channel. That magnitude-frequency theory, as well as later studies on the effects of human activity on rivers and the downstream impacts of dams, made Dr. Wolman's work a foundation for water-resource management and river restoration and engineering.

"We still learn about the things that Reds discovered in the '50s," said David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphologist and MacArthur award recipient."We're still standing on his shoulders."

Dr. Wolman applied his expertise to local problems beginning in the 1960s, when his report on how runoff from construction projects was choking Maryland's streams with sediment helped lead to new state regulations. He later headed the Oyster Roundtable, a coalition of environmentalists, watermen and scientists that designed a plan to reverse the Chesapeake Bay's catastrophic oyster decline during the 1990s.

After a 2002 drought left Maryland's reservoirs depleted, Dr. Wolman headed a state water-advisory committee and championed measures to require that communities plan for water supplies before approving new development.

Markley Gordon Wolman was born Aug. 16, 1924, in Baltimore, the only child of another well-known Johns Hopkins professor, Abel Wolman, a sanitary engineer who pioneered the chlorination of drinking water. The two would work alongside each other as professors for more than 30 years until Abel Wolman died in 1989.

"There's no question that my father's influence helped stimulate my interest in the sciences and engineering," Dr. Wolman told the Johns Hopkins Gazette in 1995. "We began a conversation in those fields when I was 4 that continued until Pop died."

He went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania before being drafted into the Navy during World War II. After the war, he returned to Baltimore and graduated from Hopkins with a geology degree in 1949.

As a student, he and a friend took a trip to Alaska, stopping at Montana's Glacier National Park on the way. A store clerk invited them to a popcorn-popping party, where Dr. Wolman met Elaine Mielke, whom he married in 1951.

He continued his studies at Harvard, earning a doctorate in geology in 1953. His dissertation on Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania became a well-known case study and led to his development of the "Wolman pebble count," a way to document the size and distribution of riverbed rocks.

It was at Harvard that Dr. Wolman met Leopold, who also was the son of a famous scientist, the biologist Aldo Leopold, who wrote the classic conservation book "A Sand County Almanac." The two sons worked together as hydrologists at the U.S. Geological Survey, spending summers studying and measuring the rivers of the West until 1958, when Dr. Wolman accepted a faculty position at Hopkins.

He was known as a tireless teacher who led weekly field trips to suburban creeks, employing a stream-side Socratic method while invariably wearing a bowtie and smoking a cigar. An early proponent of interdisciplinary education, he helped combine the departments of geography and sanitary and water resources to create the department of geography and environmental engineering, which he chaired for 20 years until 1990.

The recipient of numerous awards and a member of many scientific groups, Dr. Wolman was elected in 1988 to the National Academy of Sciences. In 2006, he was awarded, along with Leopold, the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science. He served frequently on National Research Council panels and was a past president of the Geological Society of America.

In addition to his wife, survivors include four children, Elsa Wolman Katana of Baltimore, Abel G. Wolman of White Salmon, Wash., Abby W. McElroy of Westport, Conn., and Fredericka "Ricka" Wolman of North Haven, Conn.; and two grandsons.

For all his work on water, Dr. Wolman was a self-proclaimed "cow nut" who dreamed of becoming a dairy farmer after his mother sent him at age 12 to spend summer on a Connecticut farm. He returned many summers thereafter and reportedly fell so in love with cattle that he kept a photo of a Guernsey cow in his wallet. Even then, he showed signs of a future in geomorphology.

"I think the 4-H Club should do more in soil erosion," he wrote to the sponsor of the Connecticut club after returning to Baltimore one fall. The sponsor demurred. "Erosion control," Dr. Wolman later said, "wasn't easy to do when you were 13."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company