GILBERT F. WHITE, "FATHER OF FLOODPLAIN MANAGEMENT" AND FORMER HAVERFORD PRESIDENT, DIES AT 94
Gilbert F. White, known worldwide as the "father of floodplain management" and one of the most distinguished and internationally recognized faculty members at the University of Colorado at Boulder, died on Oct. 5 at his home in Boulder. He was 94.
White joined the CU-Boulder faculty in 1970 as a professor of geography and director of the Institute of Behavioral Science and remained active in academic work into his 90s. He founded CU's Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, the nation's leading repository of knowledge on human behavior in disasters, in 1974.
White's work in natural hazards changed the way people deal with nature and made the world safer for people to inhabit. "Floods are 'acts of God,' but flood losses are largely acts of man," he wrote in 1942 in his doctoral dissertation, which has since been called the most influential ever written by an American geographer.
Today planners tend to look at the landscape the way White did, considering a broad range of alternatives to cope with floods including land-use planning, upstream watershed treatment, flood-proofing buildings, insurance, emergency evacuation, and dams and other structures.
White was the Gustavson Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography at CU-Boulder and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences. His numerous awards include the nation's highest scientific honor, the National Medal of Science, presented in 2000.
White served as president of Haverford College from 1946 until 1955 and taught at the University of Chicago from 1956 to 1969. He was a visiting professor at the University of Oxford in 1962-63.
Members of the CU community today remembered White's remarkable life and his indelible personal qualities.
"Professor White's work made a tremendous contribution to Colorado, the nation and the world, and he will be sorely missed from Boulder and beyond," said CU President Hank Brown.
"I have long known of Dr. White's remarkable talent and knowledge that he has given so generously to this university and to the world," CU-Boulder's new Chancellor, G.P. "Bud" Peterson, said. "He is a true giant among scholars."
"Most knew Gilbert White as one of the most distinguished scholars, researchers and teachers in this century, but he was also a 'gentle man' who, through his gentle voice and rational approach, had the unique talent of bringing together individuals with different opinions and helping them find common ground," CU-Boulder Provost Phil DiStefano recalled. "Personally, I was pleased to award him an honorary degree last spring for all that he had done for the community, the university, the country and the world."
"The world is a better place for having had Gilbert in its midst," said Jane Menken, director of the Institute of Behavioral Science and a distinguished professor of sociology. "Gilbert was that rare combination—a distinguished scientist and an outstanding humanitarian committed to translating scientific evidence into policy and programs to better people's lives. His was a life to celebrate."
"We will always remember Gilbert, not only as a man of science and humanity, but as the person who set IBS on its present course and whose leadership and friendship was always accompanied by wisdom and enlightenment," said Richard Jessor, a founder and former director of the Institute of Behavioral Science and a CU-Boulder distinguished professor of behavioral science.
White was born on Nov. 26, 1911 in Hyde Park, Ill., and received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago. He studied the Mississippi River Basin for the federal government as a graduate student in the late 1930s, when many planners followed a flood-control policy based on the construction of dams. White questioned the impact of such projects and suggested alternatives that protected people as well as floodplain ecosystems.
After leaving the federal government in the 1930s, White never again had to apply for another job, according to Robert E. Hinshaw, a former college president who wrote a biography of White published this year. And he never again worked for the federal government although he could easily have held positions of global importance, according to Hinshaw.
"He has refused to let himself be drawn into a government position that would force him to use a more formal decision-making process," and his personal beliefs were behind that decision, said Hinshaw, who also chaired the CU-Denver anthropology department from 1982 to 1984.
White chaired the American Friends Service Committee from 1963 to 1969 and his Quakerism is a vital part of his life, said Hinshaw, who is also a Quaker. White's leadership style is consistent with the Religious Society of Friends' traditional consensus-building process, he said.
That leadership style was highly effective in White's efforts to deal with contentious water issues in the Middle East from 1996 to 1999, and also in leading a task force that led to the establishment of the National Flood Insurance Program. He has made lasting contributions to the study of water systems in developing countries, global environmental change, international cooperation, nuclear winter and geography education.
Among White's numerous other honors are the National Geographic Society's highest award, the Hubbard Medal; the United Nation's Sasakawa International Environmental Prize; and the Association of American Geographer's Lifetime Achievement Award. He received an honorary doctorate from CU-Boulder in May.