Group seeks to rename portion of Cockeysville stream after renowned researcher

This photo of the late river scientist M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman was taken along the Jones Falls shortly after Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Some of Wolman's former students and collegues want to name a portion of a Cockeysville stream Wolman often studied after him.

An effort is underway to rename a portion of Baisman Run, which runs through Oregon Ridge Park, after a long-time Johns Hopkins University professor who was widely respected and considered a leader in the field of river science, M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman.

Wolman died in 2010 at his home in Mount Washington, but in the past year a group of his former colleagues and students, led by University of Maryland Baltimore County professor and Pikesville resident Andy Miller, have launched an effort to rename the stream that Wolman studied for much of his adult life.


Although Wolman was internationally known for his work in river science, and studied multiple streams in the area, the relatively tiny Baisman Run, in Cockeysville, is a place he returned to time and time again, bringing with him his children and students to learn about such phenomena as water flow and sediment distribution.

Miller and his colleagues have asked the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to make the change.


According to those who worked with Wolman, he was a giant in the field of river science, the study of the processes that affect rivers and finding connections between them. Wolman chaired the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, served on public commissions and wrote many notable reports, including, "Water for Maryland's Future: What We Must Do Today," a 2008 report frequently cited by scientists and policy makers, according to Miller.

Wolman's work informed policy for how Maryland treats its river systems, but he was equally credited by colleagues for being an inspirational teacher to students at Hopkins, Miller said.

At the time of Wolman's death at age 85, former Gov. Martin O'Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake released statements on his passing that praised his work

"His years of scholarship helped to raise the global stature of Johns Hopkins University and attract bright young minds to Baltimore to study under him," Rawlings-Blake stated. "Dr. Wolman's commitment to the conservation of our natural resources helped to preserve the natural beauty of the Chesapeake Bay for generations."

The proposal Wolman's advocates have put forward is to rename after him a stretch of Baisman Run north of its confluence with Pond branch, an area within Oregon Ridge Park. Baisman Run drains from 941 acres of forested land, with residential land use at its headwaters, according to the Baltimore Ecosystem Study. It empties into Loch Raven Reservoir and, eventually, Chesapeake Bay.

Earlier this year, Miller and his colleagues contacted Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach, who represents the area through which the stream runs, for assistance in their effort. Kach in turn contacted U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin to ask for a statement supporting the name change.

Cardin wrote a June 29 letter to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in support of the name change.

"The value of Dr. Wolman's contribution to our understanding of how landscape 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" when considering a name change, according to its website. When looking at commemorative names, the board also wants to see a connection between the person and the feature being named.

A local life

Wolman, who was called "Reds" by most people, because of his red hair, was a professor at Johns Hopkins for 52 years.

He was born in 1924, the son of Abel Wolman, who was well-known in the scientific community for developing a system to chlorinate Baltimore's drinking water, according to Miller. Miller said that, although it's impossible to prove, he believes Abel Wolman saved more lives than any other person in history by chlorinating water, thus preventing a variety of illnesses.

In 1942, Reds Wolman briefly attended Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, before being drafted into the U.S. Navy, according to a memorial booklet published by Hopkins. At the conclusion of World War II, he returned to Baltimore and studied at Hopkins, from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in geology in 1949.

Wolman captained the school's men's lacrosse team and led the group to a national championship, according to the program. In 1953 he was awarded a doctorate in geology from Harvard University, and five years later he returned to Hopkins as an associate professor. He chaired the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering for three decades.


Wolman grew up near Druid Hill Park in the city, near the Hopkins campus. He worked at Hopkins most of his life — he taught his last course in the fall of 2009, and continued to work on campus in the days preceding his death in February 2010, according to the Hopkins memorial program.

In describing Wolman in a 2010 memoir, published after his death, the National Academy of Sciences praised his personality as well as his scientific achievements.

"He devoted his career to developing and teaching methods for applying Earth science to questions of environmental management and public policy. 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."

"I have met people from all over the world who may have met him only once yet still thought of Reds as their mentor," Miller said in an email. "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 something called the "Wolman pebble count," a method used by scientists to characterize the composition of pebbles in a stream bed by sampling various pebbles and recording their sizes. The method is simple — fittingly simple, Wolman's colleagues have said — in that it involves the researcher taking a step and picking up the pebble next to his or her big toe, then recording the data.

At Baisman Run, Wolman studied a variety of phenomena, including sediment distribution in the stream. At one point he had thrown 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 had 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, Miller said, but to have them arrive at the truth themselves.

The right legacy

Scientists continue to study Baisman Run, Miller said, not necessarily because of Wolman, but because it's a relatively clean stream. Johns Hopkins professor Ciaran Harman and his graduate students are currently completing work along the stream. While Wolman looked at how sediment moved through a stream, Harman and his students are looking at what rainwater encounters before it enters the stream.

Harman never worked with Wolman, but said his presence looms large at the school. It is right for Wolman to be remembered in the landscape he worked so hard to help others understand, Harman said.

Elsa Katana, one of Wolman's four children, also is pleased with the prospect of the stream being named for her father.

When she was a child, Wolman would take her to a stream when it rained to watch the water rush down from the land. He would throw corks into Baisman Run and time them as they floated downstream, all the while 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 her as a child, Katana said, but she did so because 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."