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Gilbert F. White
BornNovember 26, 1911 (1911-11-26)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedOctober 5, 2006 (2006-10-06) (aged 94)
Alma materUniversity of Chicago
University of Colorado
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Chicago

Gilbert Fowler White (November 26, 1911 – October 5, 2006) was a prominent American geographer, sometimes termed the "father of floodplain management" and the "leading environmental geographer of the 20th century" (Wescoat, 2006). White is known predominantly for his work on natural hazards, particularly flooding, and the importance of sound water management in contemporary society.


White was raised in Chicago in the Hyde Park neighborhood, and spent summers in the Tongue River Valley of Wyoming, before studying at the University of Chicago, where he earned his B.S. in 1932 and his PhD in 1942 (published 1945). From 1946 to 1955 he was President of Haverford College. He then returned to Chicago as a Professor of Geography, where he was the central figure in the "Chicago school" of natural hazards research. In 1970, he moved to the University of Colorado, before retiring after ten years there. Having published his first paper in 1935, he was still publishing into his 90s (Wescoat and White, 2003).

White was motivated by his Quaker faith to do research beneficial to humanity. As a conscientious objector to World War II, from 1942 to 1946 he served with the American Friends Service Committee aiding war refugees in France, and was briefly interned by the Nazis at Baden-Baden. He continued to serve as a leader in various Quaker service organizations for much of his life. He was also heavily involved in applying his research to reform flooding and water policy in the United States and the Middle East.

In 1944, White married Anne Underwood, with whom he had three children (Will, Mary, and Frances). Anne collaborated with Gilbert in his research until her death in 1989. Gilbert remarried in 2003 to Claire Sheridan.

Scholarly contributions

White's main contributions to society and to scholarship have been classified by Kates (2011) as follows:

In 1972, at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Gilbert F. White and a meteorologist Thomas Malone proposed the program of environmental monitoring. The ideas of environmental monitoring were announced in the brochure «Environmental Monitoring: Physical and Chemical Measurements», where environmental monitoring was understood as a systematic observation of the environment and identification of possible changes, especially in connection with human activities.[1] At the meeting participants proposed to build a system of controlling anthropogenic changes of the environment which would allow planning environmental management measures. In 1972, at the UN Conference on the Human Environment the program of environmental monitoring and establishing biosphere reserves was accepted.[2]

Some of White's most notable work involved the identification and classification of adjustment mechanisms for flooding in the United States, perceptions of natural hazards, and choice of natural hazard adjustments (Hinshaw, 2006). White identified adjustments to flooding as being either structural or non-structural. He advocated, where feasible, adaptation to or accommodation of flood hazards rather than the "structural" solutions (dams, levees, and floodwalls, for example) that dominated policy in the early 20th century. Structural adjustments, developed by engineers, are designed to modify flooding hazards so that humans are protected and can continue to live in areas that are periodically subject to flooding (floodplains). White's non-structural adjustments consist of arrangements imposed by a governing body (local, regional, or national) to restrict the use of floodplains, or flexible human adjustments to flood risk that do not involve substantial investment in flood controls (Tobin and Montz, 1997).

In his influential dissertation entitled "Human adjustment to floods," published in 1945 by the University of Chicago Department of Geography, White argued that an overreliance on structural works in the United States had actually increased damage by flooding, rather than decreasing them. He argued famously in this work – deemed by several commentators to be the most important contribution made by a geographer in 20th-century North America (Hinshaw 2006, Kates 2007) – that "Floods are an act of God, but flood losses are largely an act of man". Public confidence in structural works increased occupance of, and building on floodplains. Design standards are sometimes inappropriate, and overconfidence develops, resulting in worse disasters if a flood breaches defenses. A recent and relevant example of the impacts of undue confidence in structural works can be seen in Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans, during the summer of 2005. Historically, at least in the US, works were built to certain design specifications (for example, the 100-year flood, or 1% flood). In instances where the design specifications were exceeded (in the case of a 150-year flood, etc.), they failed, thus causing catastrophic loss in overdeveloped floodplains (White et al., 1958).

White worked under President Johnson in committees that advised the establishment of the National Flood Insurance Program – although he was not happy when his cautions were ignored and the NFIP was rolled out too quickly.

White also made major contributions to the human occupance of arid lands and the management problems of such settlements, campaigned on the dangers of nuclear weapons, and sat on many committees dealing with water management in developing countries. He oversaw informal brokering of water management conflicts in the Middle East.

Gilbert F. White, along with his former students and colleagues including Robert Kates and Ian Burton, have become some of the most influential scholars of natural and technological hazards.


White received numerous honours in his lifetime.

White received honorary doctorates from the University of Colorado, Earlham College, Hamilton College, Haverford College, Michigan State University, Swarthmore College, Augustana College and the University of Arizona.

The Association of State Floodplain Managers makes several awards in his name.


White has over 400 publications to his name.[6]


See also


  1. ^ Malon T. Environmental Monitoring: Physical and Chemical Measurements Proceedings of the Scientific Program // XVII General Assembly of the International Union of Biological Sciences, 1971. Pp. 62-65
  2. ^ Sobisevich A. V., Snytko V. A., Postnikov A. V. The surrounding environment monitoring in the Soviet Union: a review of establishing new ecological science // IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science. 2019. Vol. 350, no. 1. P. 1–6.
  3. ^ "American Geographical Society Honorary Fellowships" (PDF). American Geographical Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 4, 2009. Retrieved March 2, 2009.
  4. ^ "Public Welfare Award". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on June 4, 2011. Retrieved February 18, 2011.
  5. ^ Obituary Archived 2017-02-14 at the Wayback Machine in: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 152, No. 3 (2008).
  6. ^ See All publications by Gilbert F.White