Date: Dec. 15, 1999
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Gilbert F. White to Receive Prestigious NAS Public Welfare Medal
WASHINGTON -- The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has selected Gilbert F. White to receive the Academy's most prestigious award, the Public Welfare Medal. White was chosen for his enduring fundamental contributions to the study of environmental issues and for his positive impact on the welfare of society. Established in 1914, the Public Welfare Medal is presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good. Previous recipients include Arnold Beckman, C. Everett Koop, and Carl Sagan.
"By applying science and wisdom to the ways we think about how water is used throughout the world, he has taught us how to recognize the scope of our impact on the environment. His way of doing that made us realize the importance of looking beyond the near and the short term when we define a problem," said R. Stephen Berry, NAS home secretary and chair of the selection committee.
"For more than 60 years, Gil White has worked with great energy and skill to improve both domestic and international hazard management in many different areas," said NAS President Bruce Alberts. "To give but two examples, he has led major efforts in this country to significantly improve the effectiveness of federal flood-control efforts, and internationally he has tenaciously pursued efforts to improve the water supplies in Africa and the Middle East."
Early in his career, White came to Washington, D.C., to assist a federal committee in preparing a comprehensive public works plan for the Mississippi valley. He became skeptical that flood damages could be curbed exclusively by the prevailing technologies of dam, levee, and channel construction, and he began to study how society could change to reduce flood hazards. Instead of managing the river, for example, it made sense to stop building homes and businesses in flood-plain areas and focus efforts on protecting those already there. Years later, while professor of geography at the University of Chicago, White launched a 15-year research effort to apply these principles. In a series of studies, he and his students sought to identify the various productive uses of the flood plains across the United States and the adjustments necessary to make their use possible.
White first presented his flood-management approach in 1942 in his groundbreaking study, Human Adjustment to Floods. His work led to the development of the field of flood-plain management, a profession that has saved countless lives and dollars. To help implement this strategy he served with numerous committees and bureaus in a variety of roles, including vice chair of the President's Water Policy Commission in 1950 and consultant to the White House Floodplain Management Review Committee in 1994.
White later turned his attention to dealing with other hazards such as wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. He sponsored annual workshops where, along with other experts, he examined various ways to reduce human suffering caused by natural disasters. And he founded the University of Colorado's Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, which soon became the nation's leading agency for providing natural hazard information.
White also has made a major mark internationally. Since 1952 he has chaired several gatherings of diplomats to discuss controversial issues. And during 1969 he was involved in assembling an international scientific committee on environmental problems. His landmark study on domestic water supply in East Africa, Drawers of Water, led to several policy changes, including public support of rural water schemes in developing countries. The book offered different options for low-cost water improvements that had not been identified; European development agencies acted last year to repeat those basic studies. White has chaired international reviews of water problems in the Lower Mekong and Aral Sea Basins, and more recently, headed a committee of the National Research Council in a multinational study examining water management issues in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel, and Jordan.
White was born in Chicago on November 26, 1911, and was educated at the University of Chicago, where he received his B.S. degree in 1932, his S.M. in 1933, and his Ph.D. in 1942.
Among White's many citations for achievement are the Daly Medal of the American Geographical Society, the Iben Award of the American Water Resources Association, and the Outstanding Achievement Award of the Association of American Geographers. He holds honorary doctorates from Hamilton, Swarthmore, Earlham, Augustana, and Haverford Colleges and from Michigan State University. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences.
The NAS Public Welfare Medal, consisting of a bronze medal and an illuminated scroll, will be presented to White during the Academy's annual meeting in April 2000. The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter.