George W. Platzman, meteorologist, 1920-2008

University of Chicago meteorologist George W. Platzman, who pioneered the field of storm-surge forecasting, died Saturday, Aug. 2, at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized for a heart ailment. He was 88.

Platzman, Professor Emeritus in Geophysical Sciences at the University, specialized in dynamical meteorology and oceanography, including investigations of numerical weather prediction and storm surges. He became interested in storm surges when a 6-foot surge hit Chicago's Montrose Harbor on June 26, 1954, with fatal results. High winds blowing over expansive bodies of water cause storm surges.

"George was one of the founders of modern meteorology who transformed weather forecasting from qualitative guesswork to quantitative science," said Akira Kasahara, a Senior Research Associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "I highly regard George not only as an accomplished scientist, but as a man who had judgment that I could always trust."

One of Platzman's Chicago colleagues, Noboru Nakamura, remembers Platzman as a man of gentle manners who maintained a sharp mind until the end of his life. Nakamura ranks as "seminal" Platzman's comprehensive review of the Rossby wave, a planetary-scale atmospheric oscillation that is critical to weather dynamics, and his series of papers on the ocean tides.

"My personal favorite, however, is the transcript of the interview he conducted with Jule Charney-another prominent meteorologist of his generation-as he was dying in 1980 of lung cancer," said Nakamura, Associate Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University. "This article appeared in the American Meteorological Society's monograph, The Atmosphere-A Challenge, 1990, and brings out a first-hand view of the dawn of modern meteorology."

Early in his career, Platzman helped formulate the first weather forecast by computer, which was carried out in 1950 on the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), in Aberdeen, Md. At the time, he was working as a consultant to the Meteorology group of the Electronic Computer Project at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

Platzman also used computers to study the storm surge caused by Hurricane Carla, which struck the Texas coast in September 1961. When large-scale computers became available at the University of Chicago in 1963, Platzman's research consumed a large percentage of their processing time. His later work dealt with natural oscillations of the world ocean, and with oceanic and atmospheric tides.

Platzman's personal interests included collecting early printed editions of musical compositions by Frédéric Chopin and items pertaining to the history of Victorian science.

In the 1960s, Platzman established the Rose K. Platzman Memorial Collection at the University of Chicago Library in honor of his mother, a piano teacher. The collection consists of early editions of works by romantic composers.

Chopin soon became the focus of the collection, which grew to include nearly 500 items (http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/spcl/chopin.html/. The Library's Web site, Chopin Early Editions, includes digitized versions of all scores in the Chopin Collection (http://chopin.lib.uchicago.edu/).

"He pursued the study of Chopin's music out of passion for the subject," said Alice Schreyer, Assistant Director of Special Collections & Preservation and Director of the Special Collection Research Center at the University Library. "He achieved a level of knowledge about its printing and publishing history that commanded the respect of scholars in this field."

Platzman also was the author of A Descriptive Catalogue of Early Editions of the Works of Frédéric Chopin in the University of Chicago Library, second edition, 2003. He issued an updated online version of that publication in 2006: http://gwpstudies.net/chopin-catalog/. He also issued an online description of a collection of autograph letters of 19th-century scientists in 2008: http://gwpstudies.net/collections-letters/.

"George went after items that fit the scope of his collection with enormous persistence and zeal," Schreyer said. After obtaining a new acquisition, Platzman would examine and document it thoroughly, send it to a conservator for any needed repairs and then present it to the Library.

"This is unique in my experience with collectors, who usually hold onto their treasures and savor the joy of possession for a time before donating them to the Library," Schreyer said.

Platzman was born April 19, 1920, in Chicago. He received a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Chicago in 1940, and a master's degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Arizona in 1941.

After the United States entered World War II, he studied meteorology at the University of Chicago, where he taught the subject to Air Corps cadets in 1943 and 1944. Platzman then worked for the U.S. Corps of Engineers' Portland, Ore., District, estimating the maximum possible precipitation in the Willamette River basin for spillway design.

He married Harriet M. Herschberger Platzman on Nov. 30, 1945. She died in 1985.

Platzman earned his Ph.D. in meteorology from the University of Chicago in 1947, and in 1948, he joined the faculty of the University's Meteorology Department. That department merged with the Geology Department in 1961 to form the Department of Geophysical Sciences, of which Platzman served as chairman from 1971 to 1974. A resident of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, Platzman retired as Professor Emeritus in 1990.

Platzman received appointments as a visiting scientist to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., at intervals from 1963 to 1983. As a Guggenheim Fellow at Imperial College London, in 1967-68, he conducted research on wind dynamics in the ocean and atmosphere. His honors included elected fellowships to the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

Platzman was preceded in death by his wife and brother Robert L. Platzman in 1973. He is survived by nephews Loren K. Platzman, Atlanta, and Kenneth R. Platzman, Glenview, Ill.; and niece Elena M. Folkerts, Key Biscayne, Fla.

Print

Photos

George W. Platzman

Photo by The University of Chicago

Media Contact

Steve Koppes
Associate Director, News
News Office, University Communications
skoppes@uchicago.edu
(773) 702-8366

Stay Connected

Follow UChicago’s social media sites, news feeds and mobile suite.