Owen Martin Phillips, oceanographer, dies

Owen Martin Phillips, a retired Johns Hopkins University oceanographer and former chair of its Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, died of gastric cancer Oct. 13 at his Chestertown home. He was 79 and lived for many years in Roland Park.

Dr. Phillips developed a methodology for predicting and describing the shape of ocean waves, including giant waves, which are 100-foot-high upheavals of the sea surface. Hopkins colleagues said his research became crucial in the design of ships and oil drilling platforms, which need to withstand these outsized swells.

"Owen was a true giant in the field of fluid mechanics for his contributions to oceanography and other geophysical flows," said Darryn Waugh, chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "Much of our understanding of ocean waves can be traced to fundamental research done by Owen."

Dr. Waugh said his colleague had a "huge impact" on the Johns Hopkins University.

"Not only did he play a major role in the formation of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and twice serve as chair, but he also was its first and longest-serving chair, during which time he guided its growth and development into an internationally recognized, interdisciplinary center for research and teaching," Dr. Waugh said.

Dr. Phillips was born in Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia. According to a biography supplied by Hopkins, his father was a veteran of both world wars who took part in the Gallipoli landing and the 1917 Western Front.

Dr. Phillips entered the University of Sydney in the engineering program and earned a bachelor of science in applied mathematics. He completed his doctorate at Cambridge University in 1955.

He published his first scientific papers in 1955 and two years later joined Hopkins as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. That year, he also published a paper outlining his theory on ocean wave generation.

In 1958, he returned to Cambridge and became assistant director of research in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Friends said it did not take him long, however, to discover that the field of oceanography was expanding much more rapidly in the U.S. than it was in Great Britain. He returned to Hopkins in 1963 as a full professor of geophysical mechanics.

"He was a wonderfully gifted person and a real contributor to the world," said his friend, Dr. Paul McHugh, who was psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital from 1975 to 2001.

An engineer and scientist who probed the complex physics of fluids in motion, Dr. Phillips was the chief architect of the school's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences formed in 1967. Colleagues said his work in fluid mechanics is recognized as having had a "profound" impact on the field.

Dr. Phillips wrote more than 100 scientific papers in his field. His 1966 book, "The Dynamics of the Upper Ocean," is considered a standard reference volume for students to understand waves and turbulence. His 1991 volume, "Flow and Reactions in Permeable Rocks," unified the chemistry and physics of certain geological processes.

The Royal Society of London awarded him its Adams Prize for his first monograph, "Dynamics of the Upper Ocean." He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1968.

He was awarded the Sverdrup Gold Medal in 1974.

He became president of the Maryland Academy of Sciences and served from 1979 to 1985. He was elected a fellow to the American Meteorological Society in 1980 and the American Geophysical Union in 2006.

In 1998, at his retirement, friends filled Hopkins' Shriver Hall to hear experts in fluid dynamics pay tribute to his work. He was praised for his gracious charm, quick sense of humor and generosity of spirit.

"Owen Phillips was genuinely a renaissance man, a true polymath. He took a sincere interest in everyone in EPS, and he was unfailingly generous, especially when it came to sharing his thoughts, ideas and insights with colleagues and students," said Peter Olson, a colleague of Dr. Phillips' and a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

"His around-the-house hobbies were woodworking and mending," said his wife of 57 years, the former Merle Simons. "He fixed anything that was broken. He was interested in the way things worked and then worked backward to repair them."

His academic colleagues are planning a memorial service for Jan. 21.

In addition to his wife, survivors include two sons, Christopher Phillips of Albany, N.Y., and Michael Phillips of Brooklyn, N.Y.; two daughters, Lynette Phillips of Huntington, N.Y., and Bronwyn Ann Phillips of Baltimore; two sisters, Allison Phillips Faulks and Gillian Bolton, both of Australia; and five grandchildren.


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