M. Gordon Wolman

Internationally respected Hopkins geomorphologist was outspoken advocate for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay

February 27, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Dr. M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman, an internationally acclaimed geomorphologist and former longtime chairman of the department of geography and environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, who was an outspoken advocate for a clean Chesapeake Bay and protection of the state's water resources, died Wednesday at his Mount Washington home.

He was 85.

Dr. Wolman's family declined Friday to release a cause of death.

"With unparalleled personal and professional commitment to our natural resources and our environment, Reds pioneered actions on geologic and water quality issues including sediment, shore erosion control, oyster restoration and groundwater," Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement released Thursday. "His work and spirit will continue to guide us as we work to create a sustainable future for Maryland."

In a statement, also released Thursday, Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake credited Dr. Wolman's decades of scholarship with "raising the global stature of Johns Hopkins University" and attracting "bright young minds to Baltimore to study under him. ... His legacy will be carried on by the many people he touched throughout his life."

Markley Gordon Wolman, who was know as "Reds" because of his thick red hair, was born in Baltimore and raised in a rowhouse at Eutaw Place and Whitelock Street, near Druid Hill Park.

He was the grandson of Polish immigrants to Baltimore. His father, Abel Wolman, was the world's foremost expert on sanitary drinking water, a champion of chlorination of drinking water and considered the father of sanitary engineering. His mother, Anna Gordon, was a homemaker.

"My friendship with my father, that I can recall, began when I was about four," Dr. Wolman wrote in a profile of him for The National Academies Press, and the subject of water became a lifelong connection between father and son.

"We walked - and talked - to Druid Lake Park Drive and back. The talk did not stop until he died on February 22, 1989," Dr. Wolman wrote.

"My father and I worked together, traveled together, and reviewed each other's manuscripts. Perhaps the best-organized person I've ever known, he was not rushed and had plenty of time for me and the full life he and my mother shared," he wrote.

During the summer of 1936, when he was 12, his mother sent him to a Connecticut farm near the Mystic River.

"My mother said she wanted me to know that milk didn't come from a bottle," Dr. Wolman said in a 2004 interview with Geotimes.

After two summers on the farm and learning a great deal about cows and where milk came from, the young boy also began to become fascinated with rivers and erosion.

He graduated from Park School in 1942.

Dr. Wolman had grown up on the Homewood campus because of his father's work teaching at Hopkins, where he had established the department of sanitary engineering and served as its chair.

Dr. Wolman earned a bachelor's degree in geology in 1949 from Hopkins, and earned a master's and a doctorate in geology from Harvard University.

In 1953, Dr. Wolman wrote a paper on sampling particle size distribution of riverbeds, which resulted in the "Wolman Pebble Count" becoming a standard technique for geomorphologists. His dissertation, "The Natural Channel of Brandywine Creek, Pennsylvania," was published in 1953.

After working as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey for seven years, he came to Hopkins in 1958 to chair the department of geography, which he later helped merge with the department of environmental engineering. He headed the joint department from 1970 to 1990.

With his carefully tied signature bow ties and red hair that eventually became mostly gray, Dr. Wolman was a beloved and respected presence on the Homewood campus for more than five decades.

Dr. Wolman's professional career in river science played a "central role in defining our modern understanding of rivers in a modern, quantitative and generalizable framework that still provides a standard against which new models and concepts are evaluated," said Peter Wilcock, a professor in the department of geography and environmental engineering at Hopkins.

Sean M. Smith, a geologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is one of Dr. Wolman's graduate students; he will receive his doctorate this spring.

"His book, 'Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology,' which he wrote with Luna B. Leopold and John P. Miller and published in 1964, is the bible when it comes to discussing rivers, their flow and dimensions," Mr. Smith said.

"He did a lot of this work back in the 1950s and 1960s, and it is the foundation of how we view and manage rivers, their physical characteristics and dynamics," he said. "He was a leader and a man who inspired people. I can't say enough about him."

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