Gilbert Fowler White (1911-2006), Wisdom in Environmental Geography

By Wescoat, James L., Jr. | The Geographical Review, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Gilbert Fowler White (1911-2006), Wisdom in Environmental Geography


Wescoat, James L., Jr., The Geographical Review


  There is hope of a less hazardous environment, and its achievement
  will depend upon the linking and convergence, and the integration, of
  hazard studies into the larger consciousness of sustainability and
  equity.
  --Gilbert F. White, Robert W. Kates, and Ian Burton, 2001

Gilbert Fowler White was the leading environmental geographer of the twentieth century, and his work helped shape environmental science, policy, and organizations on scales from the local to the international. He pioneered the fields of water-resources geography and natural-hazards research. He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Association of Arts and Sciences, and many other scientific organizations. Through these scholarly achievements, and more broadly in his life and work, he demonstrated a profound wisdom.

I first came to know Gilbert through his publications in the basement stacks of Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago--which included monographs on human adjustment to floods, arid-land problems, environmental policy, and water-resources management--long before I met him in person. And now that he has passed, that is the way future generations of geographers will come to know about him and his work. Because some of my initial readings were flawed or superficial, this memorial strives to offer a deeper perspective for future readers as well as a tribute to Gilbert.

Gilbert died at his home in Boulder, Colorado on 6 October at the age of ninety-four, following seventy years of distinguished geographical inquiry and public service. He dated his interest in geography to a combination of an urban childhood in the Hyde Park neighborhood near the University of Chicago and summers spent in the Tongue River Valley of Wyoming, where he worked as a ranch hand dealing directly with issues of semiarid grassland management. He attended John Dewey's Laboratory School, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago and where students built large cardboard models of cities in the classroom and experimental watersheds in sandboxes. Gilbert earned all three degrees in geography--bachelor's degree, master's degree, and doctorate--at that university. He studied under Harlan Barrows, who also gave him his first professional opportunity as an assistant to the Mississippi Valley Commission in Washington, D.C. in 1934. The historian Martin Reuss (1992) described the creative interaction between Barrows and White in their early work on flood hazards during the Roosevelt administration.

Gilbert's long and distinguished career included roughly eight years in U.S. government service, four years in war-relief work in Europe and the United States, nine years as president of Haverford College, fourteen years in the Department of Geography at the University of Chicago, and ten years at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado-Boulder, followed by twenty-five years of active "retirement," working on projects ranging from nuclear-waste disposal in Nevada to international water science in the Middle East, as well as on flood-hazard reduction, the core concern throughout his career. These contributions earned him numerous honors, including the American Geographical Society's Charles P. Daly Medal (1971), the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (1987), the National Geographic Society's Hubbard Medal (1994), the Volvo Environmental Prize (1995), the National Academy of Sciences' Public Welfare Medal (2000), the National Science Foundation's National Medal of Science (2000), the Association of American Geographers' Lifetime Achievement Award (2002), and an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado (2006)--to name a few.

It is daunting to reflect upon Gilbert's many professional contributions and personal qualities, which were closely linked with one another. Yet in light of his influence on so many people and programs in geography, environmental studies, and natural-resources and hazards management, it seems important to try to discern the essential elements of his work. …

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