A giant dies, and the end of an era. RIP Reds Wolman [Reposted from GibertClub Listserv]

Written by Peter Wilcock

Reds Wolman died peacefully at his home yesterday afternoon, February 24, at the age of 85.  We have lost a giant, marking the end of an era.  Even more, we have lost an extraordinary human being who inspired and delighted so many of us.
Information on memorial activities and condolences will be forthcoming.

M. Gordon (Reds) Wolman
August 16, 1924 – February 24, 2010

Prof. Wolman’s career was defined by fundamental contributions to our understanding of rivers, supported by pioneering work in developing interdisciplinary environmental education and an extraordinary commitment to the application of research to river management and policy.

In his Ph.D. research at Harvard University and subsequent work with Luna Leopold at the U.S. Geological Survey, Prof. Wolman played a central role in defining rivers in a modern, quantitative and generalizable framework that still provides the standard against which new models and concepts are evaluated.  The understanding and the methods developed in this work form the foundation of modern river geomorphology, engineering, and restoration.  Building on this work, Prof. Wolman addressed a fundamental problem in river science: the magnitude and frequency of the processes that shape rivers and their ecosystems.  Is it the rare and destructive storm that sets the size, shape and composition of river channels, or the small, persistent flows, or something in between?  With his colleague John Miller, Prof. Wolman demonstrated that relatively common floods do the most work in shaping river channels and, further, that there is remarkable consistency in the frequency of these ‘effective’ floods.  This result has guided interpretation of rivers and challenged river theory for the past 50 years, while also providing a key element of modern channel restoration and design.  Prof. Wolman’s contribution extends to the pervasive impact of urbanization on rivers.  With his colleague Asher Schick, he documented the impact of urbanization on stream channels, developing a characteristic sequence of events that defines the standard model against which impacts and remediation are evaluated.

Committed to the idea that environmental stewardship requires knowledge that is both deep and broad, Reds played a leading role—by personal example, by academic leadership at Johns Hopkins University, and by advising many academic and research programs—in defining the nature and scope of effective, rigorous, and interdisciplinary environmental education.

The link between science and society was not an abstract theme for Reds, but a path to action.  Reds contributed sustained service and frequent chairmanship of National Academy Commissions, Boards, and Committees dealing with water management and policy.  He also provided expert guidance to Resources for the Future, the World Health Organization, the International Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Savannah River Plant, and the State of Maryland among others.  His indefatigable service, combined with his good-natured wisdom, influenced environmental decisions and decision-makers around the world.

For those who knew him, Reds’ professional accomplishments merely provide context for his greater personal contributions through his inspired combination of warmth, wit, and genuine affection for all he came into contact with.

The whole exceeded the sum of the parts.  Reds was a distinguished scholar who played a central role in defining our modern understanding of rivers, a visionary academic who pioneered integrated environmental education, a devoted citizen who worked tirelessly to apply an understanding of rivers to their protection and wise use, and an extraordinary human being who inspired and delighted generations of students and colleagues, all friends.


5 responses to “A giant dies, and the end of an era. RIP Reds Wolman [Reposted from GibertClub Listserv]

  1. Peter, thank you for writing such an elegant statement about Reds. He was a great person and he will be missed by many.


  2. Anthea Fraser Gupta

    I am an academic daughter-in-law of Reds. A wonderful man, whose company I enjoyed when I visited Baltimore and when he visited England.

  3. Yes, what a huge loss to several worlds. What a wonderful man and scientist. I had the pleasure of working with him at OSTP. He touched so much of the world. A beautiful eulogy.

  4. Yes, I only got the chance to meet him in person once- he invited me to lunch after reading and chatting with me about a poster I presented at the 2006 Binghamton Geomorp Symposium. He was a wonderful, and charming man. I really loved his signature bowties 🙂

    He and Luna’s work played a large role in my deciding to study fluvial geomorphology. And he certainly defined a new era in modern quantitative geomorphology (and even in studying meanders specifically). I will remember him fondly as I perform a Wolman Pebble Count next week at my field site 🙂

    Thanks for the comments, and it’s wonderful to hear how well remembered he was.

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