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UC Berkeley Press Release

John V. Wehausen, leader in marine hydrodynamics, dies at 92

– John V. Wehausen, professor emeritus of engineering science at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's leading researchers in hydrodynamics, has died at the age of 92.

Wehausen died of congestive heart failure on Oct. 6 at the Kaiser Oakland Medical Center.

John Wehausen
John Wehausen (G. Paul Bishop photo)

"Many of us in the marine academic field consider John Wehausen to be a pioneer in marine hydrodynamics," said Ronald Yeung, a UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering who chaired the campus's former Department of Naval Architecture and Offshore Engineering and considered Wehausen a mentor. "His background as an applied mathematician allowed him to set the framework for mathematical analysis of important ocean- and ship-related problems. This became increasingly important as practitioners sought to build offshore drilling systems that could reach depths of up to 2,000 meters and ships that could reach speeds over 50 knots yet survive the worst storms at sea."

Wehausen contributed original research in the areas of wave resistance, floating-system motions, ship maneuverability and ship-generated solitary waves. In 1960, he published one of his most influential works, the comprehensive review article "Surface Waves," co-authored by the late UC Berkeley professor Edmund V. Laitone. The article was originally published in the Encyclopedia of Physics and to this day is still used as an important resource for understanding the dynamics of water waves.

At UC Berkeley, Wehausen helped form the Department of Naval Architecture in 1958 with support from the Office of Naval Research. At the time, only three other U.S. institutions -- Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan and the Webb Institute -- offered accredited degree programs in naval architecture.

"The intention was to develop a program that would stress fundamental hydrodynamics and fundamental structural mechanics in contrast to the applied programs that existed elsewhere in the country," said J. Randolph Paulling, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of naval architecture and a colleague of Wehausen's for more than 40 years. "Water wave problems constitute an area of complex mathematics, and Wehausen's background in mathematics was exactly what the Office of Naval Research wanted. There were others in the world working on the mathematical theory of waves, but I think it's safe to say that Wehausen was pre-eminent in the U.S. at that time."

The department eventually evolved in 1996 into a graduate group in ocean engineering within the Graduate Division. This fall, it became a major field of study within the UC Berkeley Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Wehausen was born Sept. 23, 1913, in Duluth, Minn., the older of two boys (two of his other brothers died in childhood). His father, George Wehausen, was an engineer, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a teacher. He grew up in a suburb of Chicago and then headed to the University of Michigan to earn his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mathematics in 1934 and 1938, respectively. He also earned an M.S. in physics from the University of Michigan in 1935.

In 1937, Wehausen began his first teaching position as an instructor in mathematics at Brown University. It was there that he met his future wife, Mary Katherine Wertime, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics. They had been married 62 years when she died in January 2001.

He went on to hold other teaching positions at Columbia University and the University of Missouri from 1938 to 1944. During World War II, he worked for the U.S. Navy in operations analysis from 1944 to 1946 before joining the David Taylor Model Basin, a Navy research and development lab in Bethesda, Md. now known as the Hydromechanics Directorate at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

His three-year tenure at the David Taylor Model Basin would prove formative. There, Wehausen met and was greatly influenced by renowned German ship hydrodynamicist Georg Weinblum. Wehausen's interest in water-wave theory and ship hydrodynamics can be traced to this time period.

Wehausen served as head of the Mechanics Branch of the federal Office of Naval Research from 1949 to 1950, and was then selected as executive editor of the journal Mathematical Reviews, a position he held from 1950 to 1956. In 1956, he was recruited by UC Berkeley, where he developed the graduate degree program in naval architecture. The rigorous curriculum would eventually become a model for similar programs around the world.

During his career at UC Berkeley, he was known for the great respect and concern he had for his students. His daughter, Sarah Wikander, said that she and her siblings remember that students from all over the world frequently joined their family for dinner.

Friends and family noted Wehausen's love for languages, music and literature. He spoke German and French fluently and he could read Russian well. During the 1960s, he also seriously studied Turkish. In addition, he and his wife and children all studied musical instruments and played chamber music together.

He retired from UC Berkeley in 1984, but remained active in research. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, which awarded him a Davidson Medal for outstanding scientific accomplishment in research. Among the many other honors he earned throughout his career was an honorary doctorate degree from the Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, where he had taught during a sabbatical leave.

In June 2002, colleagues paid tribute to Wehausen by organizing a Special Symposium of the Offshore Mechanics and Arctic Engineering Conference in Oslo, Norway. More than 100 colleagues, friends and former students attended the symposium. At that event, Wehausen was awarded the American Society of Mechanical Engineers International Lifetime Achievement Award.

Wehausen is survived by daughters, Sarah Wikander and Julia Wenk of Berkeley, Calif.; sons, Peter V. Wehausen of Sebastopol, Calif., and John D. Wehausen of Bishop, Calif.; six grandchildren and one great-grandson.

A memorial gathering is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1, in The Great Hall at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club.

Memorial donations and gifts can be made out to the UC Regents, John Wehausen Memorial Fund, c/o College of Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, 201 McLaughlin Hall, MC 1722, Berkeley, CA 94720-1722. The funds will be used to establish a scholarship for graduate students studying marine hydrodynamics.