Photo of Gilbert F. White

Gilbert F. White

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences
For outstanding leadership and scientific contributions to geography and other Earth and environmental sciences, and for helping shape cooperative efforts to assess the Nation’s floodplain, water use, and natural disaster policies for more than five decades.

Gilbert White defines “human adjustment”

Gilbert F. White’s 1942 doctoral dissertation — in which he wrote that, “Floods are ‘acts of God,’ but flood losses are largely acts of man” — has been called the most influential dissertation ever by an American geographer. White’s influence on environmental geography cannot be overstated. Known as the “father of floodplain management,” White spent his career studying natural hazards and how to mitigate potential disasters. White was largely motivated by his pacifist Quaker faith to perform research that would help humanity, ultimately putting that desire towards studying natural catastrophe and, in particular, floods. The geographer spent World War II aiding war refugees in France, and was even briefly held by the Nazis. Following the war, White went on to serve as the president of Haverford College from 1946 to 1955 and later as a Professor of Geography at the University of Chicago until 1970, when he moved to the University of Colorado. Among other things, White is best known for researching how to bring safe water to humans worldwide, how to facilitate peace through water development and management, and how to reduce the global toll of natural hazards and disasters. Impressively, White continued publishing papers well into his 90s.

By Sara Grossman