Scientist’s admirers want stream he loved renamed in his honor
M. Gordon Wolman, leader in river research, studied Baisman Run extensively
Friends and admirers of M. Gordon “Reds” Wolman are asking federal officials to rename a stretch of Baisman Run that runs through Oregon Ridge Park in his honor.
Wolman, a Johns Hopkins University professor and a leader in the field of river science, died in 2010 at age 85. University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor Andy Miller is leading a group of Wolman’s former colleagues and students in the effort to rename the stream that Wolman studied for much of his life.
Wolman was known internationally for his work in river science and studied many streams in the area. But Baisman Run in Cockeysville is a waterway he returned to time and time again, taking with his children and students to learn about subjects such as water flow and sediment distribution.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is the agency that would officially change the name.
Wolman chaired the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins, served on public commissions and wrote many reports.
Miller said Wolman’s 2008 report “Water for Maryland’s Future: What We Must Do Today” is cited by scientists and policymakers alike. But he said Wolman also deserves credit for inspiring his students.
The stream that would be renamed is the stretch of Baisman Run north of its confluence with Pond Branch. Baisman Run receives its flow from 941 acres of forested land before emptying into Loch Raven Reservoir.
Miller and his colleagues contacted Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach, who represents the area through which the stream runs. Kach asked Sen. Ben Cardin for a statement of support.
Cardin wrote to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in June.
“The value of Dr. Wolman’s contribution to our understanding of how land- Wolman sits along the Jones Falls in this photo taken shortly after Hurricane Agnes struck the area in 1972. scape management, water quality and ecological integrity impact the Chesapeake Bay cannot be understated and should be recognized,” Cardin wrote.
The U.S Board on Geographic Names requires a show of “local support” before it will change a name. When looking at commemorative names, the board also wants to see a connection between the person and the feature being named.
Wolman, who was known as “Reds” because of his hair, was a professor at Johns Hopkins for 52 years.
The son of water chlorination pioneer Abel Wolman, M. Gordon Wolman grew up near Druid Hill Park in the city. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he studied at Johns Hopkins, was captain of its national champion lacrosse team, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geology in 1949.
He earned a doctorate in geology at Harvard University in 1953, and returned to Johns Hopkins five years later as an associate professor. He chaired the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering for three decades.
He taught his last course in the fall of 2009. He died February 2010.
“He devoted his career to developing and teaching methods for applying Earth science to questions of environmental management and public policy,” the National Academy of Sciences said after his death. “In doing so he created a legacy of published work, influential reports to government, and students inculcated with his profound commitment to applying science as public service. His work guided public policy related to water management and environmental problems throughout the world.” Miller elaborated. “I have met people from all over the world who may have met him only once yet still thought of Reds as their mentor,” he said. “He had that effect on people. He was the most down-to-earth, unassuming person you could ever hope to meet and he delighted in talking with people from all walks of life about anything at all.”
Wolman was also known for the “Wolman pebble count,” used by scientists to characterize the composition of a stream bed. The researcher takes a step, picks up the pebble next to his or her big toe, then records the data.
At Baisman Run, Wolman once threw marbles in the water and promised a case of beer to the students who found them. The marbles showed how the dirt and rocks along the stream bed moved over time, Miller said.
It was Wolman’s style to pose questions, but not give answers, Miller said. It was not his goal to tell his students what was true, he said, but to have them arrive at the truth themselves.
Elsa Katana, one of Wolman’s four children, is pleased with the idea of renaming the stream for her father.
When Katana was a child, she said, her father would take her to a stream when it rained to watch the water rushing down from the land.
He would throw corks into Baisman Run and time them as they floated downstream, shouting out numbers for his children to write down, measuring the flow of the stream during the storm.
Standing in the rain for the sake of science wasn’t always appealing to Katana as a child. But it was a chance to spend time with her father.
“Most of it was just to be with him,” she said. “He was so much fun.”
“He was the most downto-earth, unassuming person you could ever hope to meet.”
Andy Miller is leading an effort to have a section of Baisman Run at Oregon Ridge Park renamed in honor of M. Gordon “Reds” Wolman. Wolman, a former John Hopkins University professor, was leader in the field of river science and studied the waterway extensively.