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M. Gordon Wolman papers

Identifier: MS-0554

Scope and Contents

This collection documents the professional life of M. Gordon Wolman.

The collection has been organized into 5 series. Series 1 Correspondence contains letters and emails that were filed separately. Series 2 Professional Activities contains files on committees, working groups, task forces and other professional association work. Series 3 Research contains Wolman’ writings, presentations to conferences and meetings, research notebooks and data, and his work as a paid consultant. Series 4 Johns Hopkins University contains material on his teaching, work as an administrator, and university committee work. Series 5 Personal contains his own student work, materials about him, awards and honors, photographs and audiovisual material, and information about his father Abel Wolman.


  • Creation: 1913-2011


Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. Researchers are responsible for determining any copyright questions. It is not necessary to seek our permission as the owner of the physical work to publish or otherwise use public domain materials that we have made available for use, unless Johns Hopkins University holds the copyright.

Biographical / Historical

Markley Gordon Wolman was geomorphologist with a wide-ranging career. According to the National Academy of Sciences memoir, he will be remembered for a career based on research and teaching methods that applied Earth science to questions of environmental management and public policy. He was a scientist, environmental activist, teacher and mentor, university administrator, and government advisor on the local, state, national and international level. For a chronology of Wolman’s career, consult his curriculum vita in box 59.

Wolman was born in 1924 in Baltimore the son of Anne and Abel Wolman. His father was a sanitary engineer whose accomplishments ranged from developing chlorinated water, to designing water supply systems for cities throughout the world, to advising on the safe use of nuclear power. The younger Wolman, known throughout his life as Reds, attended the Park School in Baltimore graduating in 1942. He began his college career at Haverford College, but left to join the U.S. Naval Reserves after his first semester. When discharged in 1946, Wolman enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University where his father was in the Department of Sanitary Engineering. Wolman graduated in 1949 with a degree in Geology and All-American Lacrosse honors. He then took an MA (1951) and PhD (1953) from Harvard University.

In 1951, Wolman embarked on a career of nearly 60 years that combined research, service to the profession, and educating the next generation of scientists.

Wolman took a position as a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey working with Luna Leopold who had been a fellow student at Harvard. While at the Survey, Wolman authored or co-authored with Leopold several papers on river-channel morphology that broadened the earlier paradigm of the graded river. Much of this research was summarized in the textbook written by Leopold, Wolman and John Miller, Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology (1964) that remained the bible of the discipline for 20 years. In the 1960s Wolman’s research focused on the sedimentation of stream channels in urban areas providing a base for regulation and channel restoration policies.

Wolman was not a prolific writer but his body of work was influential. "A 2002 citation study noted that of the top ten most frequently cited papers in his field, four were authored or co-authored by Wolman." Topics of his influential papers include: energy; human response to flood hazard in developed and developing nations; water supply and human health; pollution of waterways; the management of large rivers; the transmission of water-borne diseases in tropical rivers; land degradation and soil productivity; water resources; and toxic waste disposal policies.

Wolman was committed to his profession and worked tirelessly in advancing the organizations and their work. His unique ability to frame important questions and organize a group to answer these questions made him a natural choice for the myriad committees, commissions and task forces on the local, national and international level on which he served or chaired throughout his career. He served the state of Maryland well serving on groups studying water quality standards, dredging the Baltimore Harbor, and the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its fisheries. A full list of the professional organizations he served is in Series 2 of this collection. Some include: Academy of Natural Sciences, the International Geological Congress, Institute for Cooperation in Environmental Management (ICEM), International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), NRC Committee on Water Quality Policy, NRC Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources (CGER), Resources for the Future, and the World Health Organization.

Wolman was elected to the three most prestigious and exclusive scientific bodies in the nation: National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and American Philosophical Society. His contributions to the profession were recognized by the many awards he received including: John Wesley Powell Award (USGS); Cullum Geographical Medal (AGS); Ian Campbell Medal (AGI); Penrose Medal (GSA); Horton Medal (AGU), and the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science.

In 1958, Wolman returned to Johns Hopkins University where he stayed for the remainder of his career. He was hired as the chair of the Isaiah Bowman Department of Geography (TIBDOG) and oversaw the merger of this department with that of Sanitary Engineering into the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering (DOGEE). Under his leadership (1970-90), DOGEE became one of the first and most ambitious experiments in interdisciplinary research and education.

When honored with the Horton medal from the American Geophysical Union, the citation noted: “Arguable his most enduring legacy may be the generations of students he has taught over the years at Johns Hopkins...[H]is academic “family tree” included 47 children, 106 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, and four great-greatgrandchildren.” The key to his success was a combination of his infectious enthusiasm for his subject, his ability to pose questions that drew students into the subject and a personality that enjoyed interacting with people.

In addition to serving as faculty member and department chair, Wolman served on many university committees from chairing the committee on undergraduate education during the turbulent 1960s, to serving on the advisory committees for the Center for Metropolitan Planning and Research, the Bloomberg School Department of Environmental Health, and the Center for a Livable Future. Twice Wolman made time for the demanding assignment of serving as interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs (January-July 1987; March 1990-August 1991). The University honored Wolman for his many contributions. In 1995 there was “A Celebration of the Career of M. Gordon Wolman,” and he was awarded the President’s Medal of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995 and the Milton Stover Eisenhower Medal for Distinguished Service in 2005.

Wolman was still teaching, consulting, and active professionally at his death in February 2010.


77.63 Cubic Feet (61 record center cartons, 1 legal size document box, 1 flat box (25 x 21 x 3 inches))

Language of Materials


Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were donated by the Wolman family in 2011. The papers had been collected from Wolman’s campus office in Ames Hall, several departmental storage areas, and his home.

Processing Information

This collection was processed in May 2011 by Cynthia Requardt

M. Gordon Wolman papers
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Repository

The Sheridan Libraries
Special Collections
3400 N Charles St
Baltimore MD 21218 USA