Jerome Gavis, scientist, dies

Retired chemical engineer spent time in the old USSR and researched the Chesapeake Bay's health

  • Jerome Gavis
Jerome Gavis
February 16, 2011|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Jerome Gavis, a retired Johns Hopkins University professor of chemical engineering who conducted early basic research on the Chesapeake Bay's environmental health, died of a stroke Feb. 8 at Union Memorial Hospital. He was 82 and lived in the Village of Cross Keys.

Born in Hartford, Conn., he was the son of a clothing salesman and a homemaker. He moved with his family to Brooklyn, N.Y., and was a 1945 Stuyvesant High School graduate. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and a doctorate in chemistry from Cornell University.

He then became a Monsanto Chemical research scientist in Massachusetts.

Family members said that at age 26, he was the oldest man in the records of his draft board in Brooklyn — and it was his time to serve. He was assigned to the Edgewood Arsenal in Harford County, and he lived in a small apartment in a rural setting quite different from New York. He said it was a new experience to wake up to cows in the yard and deer running in the road. He also learned to eat steamed hard crabs at Gabler's on the Bush River.

In 1956, a college friend and Hopkins graduate student invited Dr. Gavis to a party where he met department of chemical engineering faculty members. One of the professors invited him to interview for a newly created faculty position. He got the post and joined the university in 1956 and remained on the faculty until his 1990 retirement. He was the chairman of the chemical engineering department in 1965.

In the 1960s, he noticed an announcement that the National Academy of Science was looking for a "typical American family" headed by a research scientist to send to Russia for six months. Dr. Gavis applied and was accepted. He studied the Russian language and waited out two years' worth of diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Russian governments.

"It was a fascinating experience to be one of the first families on such an exchange," said his son, Alexander Gavis of Wellesley, Mass. "His stay there led to his long interest in Russian culture, art and society."

In May 1965, he, his wife and two young children flew to Moscow, where they lived in an apartment hotel. Dr. Gavis worked at the Institute of Electro Chemistry.

"We were told it would be very restrictive for Americans, but the people were wonderfully hospitable. We ran around Moscow and took the buses and the Metro," said his wife, Ruth Beitchman, whom he married in 1954. "My daughter learned to speak Russian there. My son's first three words were in Russian."

After returning to Baltimore, Dr. Gavis changed fields and joined the Hopkins department of geography and environmental engineering. With research funded by the National Science Foundation and the Chesapeake Bay Institute, he studied the chemistry of air and water pollutants on ecosystems. He often cruised the bay aboard a research vessel, the Ridgely Warfield.

"He was part of early, early basic research work," said his son. "He took samples of the bay's water and wrote a number of papers about nutrients and nutrient depletion on marine organisms."

Dr. Gavis taught undergraduate and graduate students, ran a research lab, served on the school's admissions committee and became an authority on water's ecological problems.

With colleagues at the National Center for Resource Recovery, Dr. Gavis worked on developing methods of separating solid waste components. In his summers, he was a researcher at the U.S. Water Commission. In the 1970s, he spent time at the Marine Biological Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

He was an avid sailor. In the 1960s, before the redevelopment of Baltimore's harbor, Dr. Gavis organized a sailing club for small boats.

"The harbor was a mess then. We had a Sunfish. We took it down on the top of a car or used a trailer," his wife said.

He sailed his Sunfish off the old warehouses and piers and later sailed an O'Day Mariner and a Catalina 27. He was a member of Catalina Fleet 19, where he was an officer. He also sailed in Canada and the Virgin Islands and aboard canal boats in Europe.

In the 1990s, he returned to Russia, where he traveled the Trans-Siberian Railroad and took boats along the Volga and Dneiper rivers. He also developed an interest in Russian art and antiques and collected late 19th-century porcelain figurines and samovars.

He also joined Hillwood Estate, the museum and garden founded by Marjorie Merriweather Post, which houses a collection of Russian imperial art. He also belonged to the Hillwood Collectors' Circle.

"Russian art became a part of his adventures when he and his wife visited there," said Anne Odom, Hillwood's curator emeritus. "They were interested in travel and in nosing about in the antiques shops."

Services were held Friday.

In addition to his wife and son, survivors include a daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Gavis of Princeton, N.J., and four grandchildren.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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