American Geographer 1911–
Gilbert F. White is an internationally renowned geographer who received the National Academy of Science's Public Welfare Medal in 2000 for his lifelong work to improve water supplies worldwide and to protect people from flood hazards .
White received his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral (Ph.D.) degrees from the University of Chicago. From a Quaker background, White became a conscientious objector to military service during World War II under the
Gilbert White's dissertation has been called the most influential ever written by an American geographer. White studied a more holistic approach to flood control than the popular methods of the time. He developed his innovative ideas of flood control while working for the Mississippi Valley Committee in the 1930s and as an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the early 1940s.
In 1945, White's dissertation research was published as a book titled Human Adjustments to Floods. The book argued that rather than trying to control floods with levees and reservoirs, society might find it more effective to avoid developing floodplains or to find more productive uses for them such as planting certain crops or as recreational areas. White is known as the "father of floodplain management " for the body of work he developed from this research.
After receiving his Ph.D., White became the president of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, the first college founded by the Quakers. In 1955, he returned to the University of Chicago, where he chaired the Department of Geography and was active in many research and public service projects. During the 1950s, he worked to bring diplomats from the East and West together in Switzerland to ease Cold War tensions. From 1963 to 1969 he chaired the American Friends Service Committee.
In 1970, White moved to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he served as director of the Institute of Behavioral Science, and where he established the Natural Hazards Research Applications and Information Center. This Natural Hazards Center brought together researchers from various disciplines to study natural hazards such as floods, earthquakes, droughts, hurricanes, and volcanoes, and their mitigation. The center helped improve the interdisciplinary communication between geographers, economists, geologists, hydrologists, and others, and influenced the course of research in the profession. White also served as the president of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), and chaired the steering committee for their High School Geography Project, working to improve geography education efforts throughout the United States.
White retired from the Natural Hazards Center in 1984, and remains the Gustavson Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Colorado. As of 2002, he continued to travel and work to develop water plans throughout the world.
Gilbert White's most important work was done in collaboration with his wife, Anne, and David Bradley. They studied thirty sites in East Africa, investigating the water-gathering practices of local people to gain information about the costs of time, energy, money, and health. Until their book, Drawers of Water, was published in 1972, no researchers had studied the decision-making processes of people in developing countries where 60 percent of populations obtain their water by going some distance to draw it and then carry it to where it is needed. This study changed government perspectives toward the quantity and quality of water provided for poorer people in their countries.
White has spent over 60 years working for improved water resources management. He has made significant contributions in promoting international collaboration. During the 1960s and 1970s, White campaigned for a water resources management plan for Asia's lower Mekong basin and his efforts kept North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia negotiating their water plan even after fighting in the region had begun.
In the early 1980s, White served as the president of SCOPE (Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment) and spearheaded a landmark report in 1985 on the environmental effects of nuclear war that reflected the consensus of over three hundred scientists from thirty countries.
White's career has greatly influenced the development of the world's modern environmental consciousness. White has long called for researchers to conduct post-audits to study the actual effects of environmental policies that are implemented.
In 1979, along with Mostafa Tolba (then head of the United Nations Environmental Programme), White issued a declaration suggesting that human activity might cause a change in global climate. He participated in the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In 1999, he headed a committee to make policy recommendations to alleviate conflict over water resources in the Middle East. In 2000, White was given the prestigious Millennium Award of the International Water Resources Association in recognition of his outstanding lifelong contributions to both the theory and practice of water resources management around the world.
White, Gilbert F. Human Adjustments to Flood. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1945.
White, Gilbert F., David Bradley, and Anna U. White. 1972. Drawers of Water: Domestic Water Use in East Africa. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1972.
Association of American Geographers. Washington, D.C. <http://www.aag.org/> .
Association of State Floodplain Managers. <http://www.floods.org/> .
The National Academies. <http://www.nas.edu/> .
The Natural Hazards Center. University of Colorado, Boulder. <http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/> .