In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gilbert Fowler White

  • Introduction
  • Professional Geography
  • Arid Lands
  • Floods and Flood Protection
  • River Basins
  • Global Environmental Change
  • Science Applied to Decision-Making
  • Nuclear War, World Peace, and Humanitarianism

Environmental Science Gilbert Fowler White
Robert Merideth, Robert Varady
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0052


Gilbert Fowler White (b. 1911–d. 2006), often referred to as the “father of floodplain management,” was a distinguished American geographer in the 20th century. White’s work on floods, water resources, natural hazards, global environmental change, and other topics significantly influenced generations of students, scholars, scientists, and decision makers—as well as governments, nongovernmental organizations, and other institutions—around the world. White was born and raised in Hyde Park, Illinois, and attended the University of Chicago, where he earned degrees in geography (bachelor’s, 1932; master’s, 1934) and where he began to embrace the tenets of pacifism and Quakerism. White initiated, but interrupted, his doctoral work at Chicago to serve instead in the New Deal government of Franklin Roosevelt, assuming positions with several executive agencies to work on national land and water planning. Informed by this experience, he resumed his doctoral studies and received a Ph.D. in geography in 1942, producing a dissertation, “Human Adjustment to Floods: A Geographical Approach to the Flood Problem in the United States” (which, after it was published in 1945, would profoundly influence national- and local-level management, planning, response, and adaptation to floods; see White 1945, cited under Floods and Flood Protection). When the United States entered the Second World War, White registered as a conscientious objector and served with the American Friends Service Committee, assisting refugees in France. While there, he was taken prisoner and interned in Germany for a short period. After the war, he began his academic career in 1946 as president of Haverford College. Nearly a decade later he returned to the University of Chicago in 1955 as professor and chair of the Department of Geography. In 1970 he became a professor of geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he founded and directed the Institute of Behavioral Science, and later the Natural Hazards Research and Application Information Center. A recurrent note throughout White’s career following the war was his involvement with and work for various United Nations agencies and initiatives. This association allowed him to broaden his horizons while contributing to what he, as a Quaker, saw as the planet’s best hope for securing peace. Over the span of his seventy-year career, White was an effective communicator and advocate for the use of scientific research and information to benefit humankind. Throughout his life, he was physically and mentally active, and he remained intellectually engaged and productive virtually until the final months of his life. White received many top honors including the National Medal of Science from the National Science Foundation, Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of American Geographers, Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, eight honorary degrees from US universities and colleges, and many other awards.

General Overviews

As the biographies and memoirs presented in this section illustrate, Gilbert White was a visionary and an influential scholar with a range of interests: (i) floods, flooding, and flood management; (ii) natural and environmental hazards (in addition to floods), including reduction of or adaptation to the impacts of hazards; (iii) public water supplies, sanitation, and human health, both in the United States and globally; (iv) river basins, integrated water use and management, impacts of large reservoirs on the environment and on humans; (v) arid lands; (vi) global environmental change, including the effects of human activity on the condition and trends of the planet’s environment; (vii) public attitudes and behavior as related to the environment; (viii) the role of scientific information decision-making; (ix) the profession of geography; and (x) world peace and humanitarianism, particularly as informed through his participation in the Society of Friends and the American Friends Service Committee. In all of these areas, one sees the salient characteristics about White and how he approached his work. He was constrained neither by political nor traditional disciplinary boundaries. His ideas, typically based on local situations in the United States, applied also to the broader, global context. White had strong views about the role of science in service to the public good and in the role of institutional changes—and the need for shifting paradigms—to recognize problems and to make needed adjustments. He saw knowledge from an integrated, interconnected, and interdisciplinary perspective. Through his sense of ethics and morality and his notions of service to humanity, he aspired to achieve global peace and a sustainable environment to promote human well-being. While his work began by looking at the social and environmental dimensions of land and water-resources issues in the United States, his influence burgeoned as he moved onto the international stage. This was particularly manifest through his involvement as a participant and leading force behind such institutions as the Mekong River Basin Commission, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), and the work of its Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), and the United Nations and UNESCO. This essay pays special attention to White’s influence in the international domain. As the sources in this section also show, White had a significant impact in the discipline of geography and across the environmental sciences. He accomplished this through the force of his creativity and thinking—with more than four hundred publications (some sixty-five of which we selected to present in this review, along with another dozen or so items written by others about White)—and via the training and mentoring of a cadre of academics, practitioners, and decision makers who implemented, developed, and expanded on his ideas and recommendations.

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