Dr. George S. Benton, 82, Johns Hopkins professor, meteorological expert

October 19, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dr. George S. Benton, a retired Johns Hopkins University environmental scholar who championed modern weather forecasting, died Saturday of cancer at his home in the Tuscany-Canterbury section of North Baltimore. He was 82.

A former president of the American Meteorological Society, Dr. Benton taught the study of weather and other disciplines at the Homewood campus from 1948 to 1988. He was dean, and vice president of the arts and sciences faculty in the 1970s.

Considered one of the nation's leading authorities in atmospheric and oceanographic sciences, he was appointed by the secretary of commerce in 1966 to direct a coordinated federal effort to bolster environmental research. A decade later, he saw the need for changes in the way weather was forecast.

"The National Weather Service was badly in need of modernization in the 1970s," said Larry Denton, a Washington representative for the Weather Channel and former Hopkins administrator. "George led the effort to convince Congress and the Carter administration that it needed to be changed." Dr. Benton helped win federal funds to upgrade the 1950s-era equipment.

From 1978 to 1981, he was lead scientist and associate administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a period when he sketched out a plan for cooperation between Chinese and American scientists.

In 1979, he led a delegation of Chinese and U.S. officials that negotiated the terms for the exchange of information. The tricky scientific fine points were worked out over a beer in a Beijing bar after formal talks ended in an impasse.

Academic colleagues recalled Dr. Benton as a born teacher -- he looked the part, with a high forehead and glasses -- who filled blackboards with his looping, sloping handwriting.

"He was a quintessential academic leader," said Dr. Owen Phillips, retired Decker Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "He had the trust of the faculty, and orchestrated the recovery of Homewood in the 1960s." Born in Oak Park, Ill., he received his doctorate in meteorology from the University of Chicago in 1947. He was drawn to the discipline during World War II, when as a Pentagon analyst he studied the effects of wind on the newly made B-29 planes, which flew at higher altitudes than other generations of aircraft.

With other scientists, he investigated the phenomenon whereby the B-29s were sometimes carried backward as they flew due west into head winds. At the time, the jet stream -- today a term often heard on weather forecasts -- was little understood.

He also served as co-president the Tuscany-Canterbury Improvement Association, and was an accomplished chess player.

In the 1940s, he met Charlotte Russ, a meteorologist at the University of Chicago. They wed in 1945, and she survives him.

Arrangements for a memorial service Wednesday at Hopkins are pending, at which time he will be awarded the Johns Hopkins President's Medal.

He also is survived by three daughters, Sandy Solomon of Princeton, N.J., Barbara Hill of Chicago, and Laurie Benton of Maplewood, N.J.; a son, Jeff Benton of Denver; a brother, Gene Stock of Boulder, Colo.; and six grandchildren.

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