Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 9

This is the ninth volume in the series of Memorial Tributes compiled by the National Academy of Engineering as a personal remembrance of the lives and outstanding achievements of its members and international members. These volumes are intended to stand as an enduring record of the many contributions of engineers and engineering to the benefit of humankind. In most cases, the authors of the tributes are contemporaries or colleagues who had personal knowledge of the interests and the engineering accomplishments of the deceased.


This is the ninth volume in the series of Memorial Tributes compiled by the National Academy of Engineering as a personal remembrance of the lives and outstanding achievements of its members and international members. These volumes are intended to stand as an enduring record of the many contributions of engineers and engineering to the benefit of humankind. In most cases, the authors of the tributes are contemporaries or colleagues who had personal knowledge of the interests and the engineering accomplishments of the deceased.


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    DONALD W. PRITCHARD, an expert in the field of coastal and estuarine physical oceanography, died on April 23, 1999, at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, at the age of seventy-six. He was professor emeritus of the Marine Sciences Research Center, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Long Island, and remained active as a consultant in marine sciences, coastal engineering, and microcomputer software. He and his wife, Thelma, lived in Severna Park, Maryland.

    Don Pritchard was born in Santa Ana, California, on October 20, 1922, to Charles L. and Madeline Siever Pritchard. He was the youngest of five children and the only boy. His father was a successful banker and a very community- oriented person, who was instrumental in forming the Santa Ana Musical Arts Association. Both parents were raised in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and their grandparents had roots in Wales and Germany. Don was outgoing like his father. He played junior varsity football in high school and in college. Don attended the private school Principia through his sophomore year, but transferred to Santa Ana public high school in his junior year. It was there that he met his future wife, Thelma Amling, whom he married five years later, after military service.

    As with many in Don Pritchard's generation, World Was II profoundly affected his career. His studies in basic and applied physics at the California Institute of Technology (1940 to 1942) were interrupted by America's entry into the war in December 1942. Pritchard volunteered for training as a weather officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and was assigned to a six months meteorology program with other air corps cadets at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Professors J. Bjerknes and J. Holmboe were leading instructors of the class of about one hundred cadets in the program. Another cadet who had interrupted his B.E. degree studies in California was R.O. Reid. This was the beginning of a long association between Pritchard and Reid, which continued during the war years, through their graduate studies at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and throughout their careers in oceanography and coastal engineering at different institutions.

    The capability of forecasting storm-induced waves, and their modification over beaches, was an extremely important factor in amphibious landings in the North African operations during the war. This motivated an improved method of wave forecasting by H. Sverdrup and W. Munk at the Scripps. In the fall of 1943, Lieutenant Pritchard and about ten other officers, including Reid, were selected for special added training in wave dynamics and prediction. Several officers from this group, along with C. Bates and J. Crowell from a prior group, would be involved in forecasting for landing operations in the Pacific and Europe.

    Both before and during the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, Pritchard served on a special team with Bates and Crowell to advise the Allied Headquarters for Operation Overlord on weather and wave conditions for the amphibious landings. Pritchard headed Detachment YK of the Twenty-First Weather Squadron, under Colonel T. Moorman's command. Most of the other weather detachments were assigned to different divisions of the advancing Allied ground forces. Detachment YK was assigned to an Army Engineer Command at Omaha Beach and provided forecasts of weather, wave conditions, and tides for the supply operations across the Normandy beaches. With the closing of the beach operations and opening of the French ports in November, the detachment moved to Allied-liberated Paris, to issue forecasts to many of the supply ports. The com manding officer of the Army Weather Service group in Paris was Major H.R. Seiwell, who had been a research scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod before World War II.

    In the spring of 1945, when the Allied forces were about to cross the Rhine River, Pritchard and Reid were reassigned by Colonel Moorman to the Pacific theater of operations with some time off for rest and relaxation in California. On reporting for duty at Headquarters AFMIDPAC in Hawaii, they learned that their assignment was with a beach intelligence team headed by Major Seiwell. This team consisted of six officers, eight enlisted men, and aircraft suitable for photo reconnaissance. However the war with Japan ended several months later, before this team from its advanced base in Guam carried out any aerial surveillance of Japan's beaches for potential amphibious landings.

    Captain Pritchard was discharged from active military service in January 1946, and he completed his B.A. degree in meteorology at UCLA in June 1946. His wartime experience in coastal processes led him to continue studies in oceanography at the University of California's Scripps Institution in La Jolla. He obtained his M.S. degree in oceanography in 1948 and completed his Ph.D. degree in 1951. The Scripps Institution graduate students, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, included many individuals like Pritchard and Reid who had served as weather officers in the army or navy during the war. Several were destined to build new academic and research programs in oceanography in the United States. These included D. Pritchard, D. Leipper, W. Burt, W. Wooster, and J. Knauss. Before 1949, Scripps Institution was the only degree-granting program in oceanography in the country. The principal mentors at Scripps—H. Sverdrup, C. Eckart, and R. Revelle—had a strong influence on the careers of the leaders of the new oceanography programs in America. It was the beginning of a golden era for science and technology, with the creation of federal research- funding agencies like the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in about 1950.

    In 1949 the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore was looking for a capable and energetic person to develop a research organization to address estuarine problems in Chesapeake Bay. At that time Pritchard was working as a research oceanographer with Gene La Fond at the U.S. Navy Electronics Laboratory in San Diego. With recommendations from La Fond and Revelle, Don Pritchard was selected to take on the challenge of creating the Chesapeake Bay Institute (CBI) at Johns Hopkins. Wayne Burt, who later built an oceanographic program at Oregon State University, joined Pritchard in establishing the program at Johns Hopkins in its first few years. The CBI was essentially the research arm of a program that also included graduate education in the newly established Department of Oceanography at Johns Hopkins. Pritchard would lead the institute nearly three decades and chair the Department of Oceanography at Johns Hopkins for nearly two decades, with support largely from ONR, NSF, and the state of Maryland.

    The research emphasis at CBI was in the physics and chemistry of the Chesapeake Bay system. Of particular concern were effects of river discharge from many tributaries, significant tidal exchange with the coastal regions, and the interaction of the lower-layer salt wedge with the overriding fresh river water. Pritchard attracted the help of a capable scientific staff in the research and teaching endeavors, including B. Kinsman, A. Okubo, H. Carter, D. Carritt, and J. Carpenter. The focus of CBI was not entirely on estuarine problems; for example, the faculty included R. Montgomery from Woods Hole, who broadened the scope of the oceanographic research to address studies of the currents in the equatorial Pacific. Notable individuals who received their advanced degrees from this program included W. Wiseman, W. Sturges, J. Schubel, S. Wilson, E. Stroup, and W. Boicourt. Their interests were in measurement and analysis of data. Other students or postdoctorals like A. Blumberg, Y. Hsueh, and D.P. Wang were interested in analytical and numerical modeling of coastal and estuarine dynamics. Pritchard's interests spanned all of the above.

    Early studies by Pritchard laid the foundation for much of the research that has been done in estuaries over the second half of the twentieth century. His seminal monograph entitled Estuarine Hydrography, published in the 1952 volume of Advances in Geophysics, is still widely referenced. Not only did Pritchard contribute in a major way to the understanding of estuarine dynamics in more than eighty publications, but he also made major contributions in estuarine measurement technology. In 1993, well after Pritchard had retired from academia, Charles O'Melia of the Environmental Engineering Faculty of Johns Hopkins University stated: “He (demonstrated) how advances in engineering and science can be transformed into innovative solutions to society's problems. He made singular contributions to the development of a variety of instruments and techniques that allowed observations in estuaries in new ways. These included dye tracer techniques, the induction conductivity-temperature indicator, the bi-axial current meter, and an early version of a current meter that made use of the Doppler shift principle. Pritchard's pioneering work in the use of dye tracers established it as a tool in the siting and design of sewage treatment plants and power plants with coastal discharges.”

    The scientific staff of the Chesapeake Bay Institute was supported almost entirely from research funding from federal sources. Even the Oceanography Building on the Johns Hopkins campus was funded by an NSF grant, thanks to the efforts of Don Pritchard. Curtailment of ONR support for coastal studies, in the 1970s, therefore had a large impact on coastal programs like CBI. Also because of health problems, Pritchard stepped down as director but remained as senior scientist. Some crucial scientific staff, including Jerry Schubel, left CBI because of the continued lack of support from, and the ineffective management of CBI by, the Johns Hopkins University.

    By 1978 Schubel had become director of the Marine Science Research Center (MSRC) at the State University of New York, in Stony Brook. This program had strong state funding and, at Schubel's invitation, Pritchard joined MSRC as associate director and professor of oceanography. Some of Pritchard's associates, including Harry Carter and Akira Okubo, also made the move to Stony Brook, as did several of his graduate students. He remained in this position, actively contributing to research issues in Long Island Sound and teaching, until 1986. His last two years of active service with the State University of New York were in the position of director and associate dean of the Marine Science Research Center.

    Pritchard was active in service to his profession and to society. He participated as member or chair of several panels of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council on topics ranging from pollution of the marine environment to archiving of oceanographic data. He was a member of the advisory board to the National Oceanographic Data Center from 1960 to 1968, when the U.S. Navy administered it. Radioactive waste disposal into the sea was the topic of several national and international panels in which he served. He and Reid served on several advisory committees to the Coastal Engineering Research Center of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Pritchard devoted a considerable amount of his time as a member of panels of the state of Maryland and of the state of New York dealing with estuarine pollution and many other societal issues. Finally he served on the editorial boards of several professional journals and as president of the oceanography section of the American Geophysical Union (1961 to 1964).

    Pritchard was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering in 1993. He received many other honors during his career. The first was a Letter of Commendation from Major General C. Moore, chief engineer, U.S. Headquarters in Europe, for providing meritorious service in surf forecasts and surveys of captured Normandy beaches in the summer of 1944. Many years later (1990), he was awarded the Mathias Medal collectively by the Chesapeake Research Consortium, the Maryland Sea Grant College, and the Virginia Sea Grant Program, in recognition of scientific excellence in studies of the Chesapeake Bay. This medal is named after U.S. Senator Charles Mathias, a long-time friend and patron of the Chesapeake Bay. Pritchard was recipient of the 1987 Annual Environmental Award by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He was also awarded an honorary doctor of science degree by the College of William and Mary in Virginia, on the occasion of the 292nd Charter Day Ceremony of the college in February 1985. These are a few of the honors bestowed on a man who had devoted so generously of his time to his profession and to society.

    Bill Wiseman offers his recollections of Pritchard's interaction with his graduate students: “Don's classes were always excit ing. He would carefully prepare his lectures and rarely follow the prepared text. He was interested in so many things, always questioning new ideas and attacking new problems that he could not remain true to his prepared notes. I found this to be very beneficial and stimulating. Rather than being presented with clean, antiseptic lectures suggesting that science proceed as a straight path from query to finding, we were privileged to watch how Don's mind attacked a problem. It was not always aesthetically pleasing; we saw all the wrong turns and stumbles. We also saw his insights, the superb grasp that he had for how the natural environment functioned, and his ability to simplify a problem to its fundamentals. This ability to watch Don's mind in action, rather than being presented with a mere tailored version of the results of his inquiry, was extraordinarily edifying and presented a model to which we could only hope to aspire.”

    Wiseman continues: “I was particularly impressed with Don's willingness to allow students to develop their own approach to research. He would point a student towards a good problem and then get out of the way and allow the student to proceed. The final product was clearly your own work. He was gracious and open with his time, insights, and advice, when asked for it. He did not impose his own approach on students. It was on his way out of the building at 7:00 or 8:00 or 9:00 o'clock at night that he was most likely to stop in at the lab and see what progress was being made. At these times, without the administrative pressures of the department and the Chesapeake Bay Institute weighing on him, he would sit and chat for an hour or more, encouraging, questioning, and suggesting—not imposing—alternative approaches. He must have been a wonderful father!”

    Don Pritchard is survived by his wife, the former Thelma Lydia Amling, whom he married on April 25, 1943, in Santa Ana, California; daughters, Marian Caldwell and Jo Anne Mitchell of Severna Park; sons, Albert of Harwood, Maryland, and Donald Jr. of Severna Park; eleven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Another beloved daughter, Suzanne Lebowitz, preceded her father in death in 1994.

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