May 30, 1995

It is ‘Reds,’ like Johns, with an ‘s’

(From the JHU Gazette Archives. See original)

Ever the geographer, Baltimore-born M. Gordon “Reds” Wolman believes there is a geographical component in the etymology of his distinctive nickname.

“I’m Reds with an ‘s’ on it, and I’ve explained why quite inadequately since I was old enough to know that people were asking,” said the bullhorn-voiced Wolman, a professor of geography and environmental engineering at Hopkins for more than 40 years and a renowned expert in the fields of physical geography and environmental policy.

“As far as I can discern, there are unknown geographic reasons why there are some towns in the U.S. where there are kids called Reds instead of Red. And Baltimore is one of them.”

By that or any other name, Reds Wolman is internationally regarded for his work in an eclectic array of disciplines–the study of surface earth processes, landscape evolution, the effects of flooding on rivers, water quality, urban environmental studies, human impact on environment, to name but a few.

And he will be honored for his contributions by colleagues, friends and former students during and after the Spring Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which will be held in Baltimore Tuesday, May 30, through Friday, June 2.

A highlight of the tribute will be a field trip on Saturday, June 3, to Brandywine Creek, Pa., where Wolman conducted extensive research in the 1950s for his doctoral dissertation on the workings of rivers (including the rates and processes of floodplain formation and the measurement of flow resistance in rivers), a broad area of study known as fluvial geomorphology.

“That small Pennsylvania watershed that he studied to formulate his ideas and theories became known throughout the world as the gauge against which the processes of all other streams and rivers were measured,” said John Costa, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a former student of Wolman’s. “It would be difficult to overstate the scientific, technical and philosophical contributions of Reds to the profession of geography and geology.”

Also, a daylong special session of the AGU meeting honoring Wolman’s career will take place Friday, June 2, and will consist of presentations and research papers on a variety of topics of interest to Wolman, such as stream restoration, pollution transfer and the effects of land use on watersheds. In addition, a Human Geography Symposium in his honor, coordinated by Hopkins professor of geography David Harvey, will be held on Sunday, June 4, on the Homewood campus.

While appreciative of the events being held in his honor this week, Wolman characteristically downplays the significance of his work. “I’m not a great man,” he said. That’s an opinion colleagues and former students challenge.

Peter Wilcock, associate professor of geography and environmental engineering at Hopkins, said Wolman’s research interests and enthusiasm for teaching have endeared him to generations of students and colleagues.

“He’s an innovative, world-class scientist, who has made lasting contributions to a remarkably wide range of subjects,” said Wilcock. “Just as important, though, is the genuine and active interest he takes in all those he encounters, including students, colleagues and visitors.”

Wolman, who earned a bachelor of arts degree in geology from Johns Hopkins in 1949 before earning graduate degrees at Harvard, began his career as a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey before returning to Johns Hopkins.

He chaired the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering from 1970 to 1990. His father, Abel Wolman, a legendary figure in the fields of water research and sanitary engineering, worked alongside his son as a professor emeritus in the department until his death, at age 96, in 1989.

“There’s no question that my father’s influence helped stimulate my interest in the sciences and engineering,” said Wolman. “We began a conversation in those fields when I was 4 that continued until Pop died.”

Wolman, who twice has served as acting provost of the university, has published numerous articles and papers on his research, and is the co-author of two books, including “Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology” (1964). It is considered among the most insightful and scholarly contributions to the field ever written and remains a landmark in modern geoscience development.

He has won numerous awards, and was elected in 1988 to the National Academy of Sciences. He is a fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and is past president of the Geological Society of America.

Wolman has served in numerous capacities for professional and community organizations, and is currently serving on the National Research Council, the consultative arm of the National Academy of Sciences. He is a board member of the Maryland Academy of Sciences, and past chairman of the board of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore and The Park School in Baltimore.

When asked to reflect on his long and successful career, Wolman spoke glowingly of the academic life.

“I don’t believe there is a freer existence than in a good academic institution like Hopkins. The mix of teaching, research, the variety that is possible … not many occupations allow that.”

While he understands the intense scrutiny of academic institutions in this new era of federal spending cutbacks, Wolman noted that many issues–including environmental policy–require long-term attention.

“One of the dilemmas of social policy is that the attention span of the political process does not accord at all well with the characteristics of the environment. The environment is forever,” he said, grinning. “Good politicians have to do something in less than the time scale of forever.”