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The Very Able Wolmans

A Portrait of Father & Son

M. Gordon 'Reds' Wolman
M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman, left, and his father Abel Wolman

From Johns Hopkins Engineer Spring 2002


By Mary Parlange


Abel Wolman '13 A&S, '15 ENG and his son, M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman '49, have each made an indelible imprint on the history of the Whiting School and the Johns Hopkins University. Abel had been involved with the Engineering school from the School's birth in 1915 until his death in 1989 at age 96. Father and son spent a combined nine years as students at Hopkins and their years as full-time faculty members have already reached 92. The two men shared a fascination with water (tap water in Abel's case, rivers in Reds'). They shared a commitment to service on national committees shaping energy, water, and land-use policy in the United States and abroad. And because they both chaired departments at Hopkins and put into practice their strong opinions about graduate education, they exerted considerable and continuing influence on the path of the Engineering school. Their accomplishments, in fact, extend so widely that all too often enumerating them leaves unspoken both the actual joy of their relationship and the gift of their presence to the Hopkins community. In conversations with Reds, and in the oral history of Abel compiled by Walter J. Hollander, Jr., MD, this joy is palpable; one can't help but be attracted by their magnetic personalities.

This article is an attempt to round out the record by taking a more personal look at the intersecting lives of these two extraordinary men. A portrait needs a certain context to make sense, though, so permit me to sketch in a biographical background.

The Father: A Champion of Safe Water for the Public

Abel Wolman was born in 1892, the fourth child of Morris and Rosa Wolman, Polish immigrants who set up a buttonhole-sewing business in Baltimore's thriving garment industry. The advent of automated sewing, the invention of the zipper, and then the death of Morris from pneumonia in 1912 threw the family into considerable financial hardship. But Rosa insisted on a university education for her sons. Abel earned a BA from Johns Hopkins in 1913. Although he had intended to go to medical school, legend has it that "Mother Wolman" changed his plans when Hopkins opened an engineering school. He joined three other students to form this first engineering class, graduating in 1915.

For the next 20 years, Abel worked in a variety of positions, including chief engineer for the State of Maryland and director of the federal Public Works Administration for Maryland and Delaware during the Depression. In the 1930s, most water systems were privately owned, and the incidence of water-borne disease, including typhoid fever, was quite high. Abel worked his "beat" relentlessly to monitor and improve local water quality.

While serving with the Maryland State Health Department, Abel made some of his most important technical contributions. The paper he published with Linn Enslow, his colleague and former Hopkins classmate, established the formula for the application of chlorine to make drinking water safe (the formula is still in use around the world). Abel also developed a generalized law for the performance of the rapid sand filter, and he applied statistical methods to the assessment of water quality. Having designed Baltimore's water system, he eventually would do the same for Detroit, Seattle, Portland, and other cities.

Although Abel lectured frequently—including at Hopkins' School of Hygiene, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Southern California, and Chicago—he felt full-time teaching would trap him in a viewpoint hinged upon the past. He was far more interested in taking an active part in the future of sanitary engineering. When Dr. J.H. Gregory, chairman of Civil Engineering at Hopkins, died unexpectedly in 1937, Hopkins President Isaiah Bowman and Dean of Engineering John Whitehead urged Abel to take Gregory's place on the faculty. Abel did agree to continue to teach once a week, but declined the full-time job. Bowman refused to give up. He asked Abel to put down on paper the conditions under which he would serve.

Abel did just that. As he told Hollander, "I sat down and wrote a letter in which I conjured up every conceivable reason why I wouldn't or couldn't come—and, incidentally, every conceivable reason why no university in its right mind ought to accept the conditions that I spelled out." Abel then told his wife, Anne, that Bowman, as Hopkins president "ought not to accept that kind of a letter, and should just simply say 'we'll have to forget you.'" Abel sent off his letter over the weekend. Monday morning, Bowman called him and said, "I've gone all through this, I accept it, and I'll send you a letter to that effect." Anne assessed her husband's situation perfectly: "You outsmarted yourself!"

One of the conditions Abel had spelled out was chairing sanitary engineering departments in both the Engineering and the Hygiene schools. This underscores his lifelong philosophy: that there is a fundamental connection between public health and the environment. He argued that to be effective, public health officials and sanitary engineers needed a grounding not only in each other's disciplines but also in the economic, political, and social context of the time.

Over the years, that philosophy would have an enormous ripple effect. Abel Wolman's students proliferated throughout the world, many of them rising to influential positions in their home countries. Arthur Gorman, an early associate of Abel's and a lifelong friend, wrote, "I feel sure the 'Wolmanizing' of these administrators, researchers, and missionaries in the basic principles of public health protection had a profound effect on the lives of millions."

Abel's speeches were legendary both on- and off-campus. Colleagues at Hopkins claim they could always tell when he was lecturing by the laughter echoing through the hallways. At the 1954 meeting of the American Public Health Association, Abel served as a moderator of a panel session. Although the panelists seemed to be having trouble hearing each other, he sat unperturbed, taking notes. At the lectern, he began by saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, my duty is to summarize this discussion for you. Due to the abominable acoustics in this hall, I couldn't hear a word that was said. I shall, however, tell you what should have been said…." He looked briefly at his notes and proceeded to give a fabulous speech.

During his career at Hopkins, Abel became involved in extensive extracurricular committee and scholarly work. In 1948, he was instrumental in framing the charter of the World Health Organization (WHO), and insisted that WHO include a major environmental unit. He served as a WHO delegate and adviser for nearly 40 years, counseling more than 50 countries on water supply and sanitation. In the process, he saved countless lives.

In the great post-war excitement surrounding the development of nuclear weapons and the discovery that nuclear fission had peacetime potential as well, Abel served on the Atomic Energy Commission's Reactor Safeguard Committee. Often a lone voice insisting on environmental protections and emphasizing the importance of public health, he argued that the disposal of nuclear wastes was a significant problem. He cautioned that the geologic, hydrologic, geographic, and meteorological data at each site had to be considered carefully. He did battle with the era's giants, among them Edward Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer. The Hollander oral history tells of one discussion Abel had with the father of the atomic bomb. Abel said, "I think, Dr. Oppenheimer, that one of the reasons for our difficulty of resolution is—and I hate to say this and perhaps I say it impertinently—is that I have tremendous respect for your field of activity and your views. When you enter my field, which we've been doing this evening and before, your ideas as to how we shall manage this 'unimportant' problem are characterized almost completely by a total ignorance of the nature of disposal.' That's where we parted, but we parted friends."

Abel never hesitated to enter the thorniest thicket if he felt his attention was merited. "A lot of my work over a period of 50-some years or more has led me into areas which I never would have thought of entering—never would have considered. I've found them exciting. This is, perhaps, the single test of why I would choose either to do or not to do a particular job when requested," he told Hollander. Abel seemed to be driven by a combination of intellectual curiosity and a true humanitarian impulse. "I'm not in the business of serving presidents, dictators, prime ministers, or other leaders. My obligation is to the common man," he has said.

Throughout his life, Abel was legendary for his incredible workload. He told Hollander that in the early 1930s, "I woke up one morning and saw the Baltimore Sun and found my name, picture and headline spread over the newspaper as holding more jobs than any other individual in the State of Maryland." A family friend wrote a scathing reply pointing out that only one of those jobs paid a salary. How did Abel manage to do so much? "I have been accused, by observers and friends—and I use the term 'accused' not in a derogatory fashion—of being an extremely well organized person," he told Hollander wryly.

The Son: Interdisciplinary Energy Applied to Environmental Health

Abel and Anne Wolman had one child, Markley Gordon Wolman, born in 1924. His crowning glory soon earned him his nickname. "It's a Baltimore thing," explained Reds' wife, Elaine. "People with red hair in Baltimore are often called Reds." At a meeting of the American Water Works Association, when Reds was about 8 years old, Abel introduced him to a colleague, as "my son Reds." The friend said, "that's interesting, but what's his real name?" Abel paused. "Wait a minute, I'll think of it."

Reds grew up surrounded by people and conversation. The Wolmans regularly opened their home for Saturday luncheons, in which, by Abel's account, "The conversations were always vivid, interesting, exciting, and sometimes highly vociferous." Even as a small child, Reds participated in these wonderful luncheons, which perhaps whetted his appetite for argument and honed his own considerable speaking talent.

Reds also developed at an early age a fascination for dairy farming. Occasionally, farm equipment salesmen would show up at the Wolman apartment on Eutaw Place, asking for Gordon Wolman, who had written to them interested in purchasing, say, a silo. "Well, no, he's not here," they were told. "He's in school." Later, Anne arranged for Reds to spend summers working on a dairy farm in Connecticut to learn that "milk did not come from bottles." He loved it. Other boys kept pictures of their girlfriends in their wallets. He had a picture of a Guernsey cow.

Reds enrolled in Haverford College in 1942. After a semester he was drafted into the Navy. When World War II ended, he decided he'd been away from home long enough, and finished his undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins, earning All-American honors in lacrosse and a BA in geology in 1949. As a Hopkins student, Reds lived with his parents, who now had a home on Charles Street across from campus. "Reds would come down into our bedroom at about 1 o'clock in the morning and sit on my bed and we would talk," recalled Abel. Anne would turn her back and go to sleep, reminding them that they had class early the next morning.

Reds went to Harvard for a master's and a PhD in geology and then worked for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1951 to 1958. Guided by his mentor, Luna Leopold, he focused his research on rigorous, quantitative descriptions of rivers and their beds, and the relative effectiveness of geomorphic processes in shaping the landscape. His Brandywine Creek study became a classic example of a comprehensive geomorphic examination of a channel. A 1953 paper he wrote generated the "Wolman pebble count" technique in geomorphology for sampling how particles are distributed in river beds.

In 1958, Reds was hired by Hopkins as chairman of the Isaiah Bowman Department of Geography. A decade later, when Geography merged with the Sanitary and Water Resources Engineering Department to become the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering (DoGEE), he chaired that, too, serving from 1970 to 1990. Like his father, Reds has innovative ideas about education and research. "He was interdisciplinary long before it became the fashionable thing to do," said Charlie O'Melia, the Abel Wolman Professor in DoGEE. The research of the younger Wolman broadened to include the effects of land use and urbanization on the evolution of the landscape, along with issues such as water quality, sustainability, and the relationship between public policy and science. Reds invested tremendous energy in recruiting a top-notch faculty, and took considerable pains to see that the department maintained ties with the Public Health school. Today, Reds serves as director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, in addition to holding a faculty position in DoGEE. "The trouble with you, Reds," a colleague once said, "is that you're trying to establish a University, not a Department."

The Fusion of Genes and Geniality

Hopkins was fortunate to serve as the home base for these two professors whose extraordinary energy and output blended in so many ways. "Reds Wolman and his father, Abel, are a treasured part of the Hopkins heritage," affirms Hopkins President William R. Brody. "Not only have they each been significant forces in their fields, but their combined commitment to the University has also been legendary."

Hopkins was far from alone in appreciating the Wolmans' contributions. In fact, the list of their honors, awards, prizes, memberships, and accomplishments is a small book in itself. Just this February, Reds was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Abel's laurels included the Lasker Award and the National Medal of Science.

Those lucky enough to have crossed paths with father or son celebrate their incredible vitality, enthusiasm, and strength of personality. "They are known and attractive campus personalities, both of them," says Ross Jones '53 A&S, the Hopkins vice president and secretary emeritus who began his four decades of service to the University in 1961 as assistant to President Milton Eisenhower. "Some members of the community just pop up on the radar screen, so to speak, and Reds and his father certainly did that," Jones adds.

There's little doubt that Reds livens up any group he joins. He's famous for his anecdotes, delivered with style and a sprinkling of irreverence. Reds "is a pretty gregarious guy," observes Robert B. Pond, Sr., professor emeritus of materials science and engineering. "I don't know anybody who has anything to do with the Hopkins campus or Hopkins life who didn't like him. And I think that's quite a statement."

Reds helped guide Hopkins through some difficult transitions when he served as interim provost in 1987 and as interim provost and vice president for academic affairs in 1990-91. Steven Muller, while Hopkins president from 1972 to 1990, considered Reds as "somebody who was a delight for me to talk to, because he did not have personal ambitions in the administration, but he knew the place forward and backward. He had very good judgment, and so he was a very good sounding board and a very good colleague."

The son must have inherited some of his magnetic personality from his father, because Abel was also universally well-liked, a man of extraordinary courtesy who was known for his quick intellect and biting wit. Gilbert White, who served with Abel on the National Resources Planning Board in the 1930s, noted that Abel "had the capacity to criticize people in public and have them chuckle about it. Very few people can do that."

Abel read voraciously. Reds recalls that "Pop's idea of a good vacation was to go to Atlantic City and sit on the roof of the Claridge Hotel and read." Abel subscribed to more than 70 scholarly journals. "I'm saturated with the necessity of understanding what goes on," Abel told Hollander. "I get the forestry journals, I get the wilderness journals, the Sierra Club material, the mosquito material (I've been a member of the National Mosquito Association for years). I want to know what's going on with all of them." After reading the journals in his office on the second floor of Ames Hall, Abel marked interesting articles to pass along to Reds, whose office was on the fifth floor. Sometimes when Reds spotted his father's secretary emerging from the elevator, staggering under a weight of reading material, Reds would gently turn her around, steer her back into the elevator, and push the button for the second floor. One can only read so much. According to Reds, she always returned with them later.

That Abel and Reds enjoyed each other's company and conversation was obvious to anyone who knew them. Abel had one of those sublime "parent moments" on the day in 1958 when Reds was to begin teaching at Hopkins. That morning, Abel had told Anne he was "bothered" about what to do when he encountered their son on campus. "My reason for that," Abel confided to Hollander, "was that in my encounters with him hitherto, we embraced—he kissed me on both cheeks, he always has…I left the office at lunchtime to come home. The campus must have been full with hundreds of students. Somebody whistles to me, and I turn around—and here's Reds at the Gilman Hall end, and I'm near the Eisenhower Library. He waves and motions me to wait a minute—and he comes toward me and I say to myself, 'Well, now here is the litmus test.' He comes up to me, throws his arms around me, kisses me on both cheeks—and the hundreds of students stop in their paths to watch these two adults embracing…I came back to Anne and said 'The situation is completely clarified.'"

The two men valued their companionship without bothering to analyze how it came about. "We didn't have a philosophic discussion about fathers and sons," says Reds. "We simply enjoyed the fact that we had a continuous conversation." For many years, Reds would stop by his father's office, and they would go for an hour's walk. Later on, when Reds became busier, the walks became less frequent. But as Abel told Hollander, "He will call, when the weather clears some, and say, 'Are you inclined to take a walk?' Of course, I always seize on it, because this is our opportunity."

I am deeply indebted to Walter J. Hollander, Jr., MD for his efforts in assembling the wonderful and comprehensive two-volume work, Abel Wolman: His Life and Philosophy, an Oral History, from which I have drawn extensively. I only regret that I never had the chance to thank him in person.