A Great Man of the Inland Seas

Jul 1, 2009

Starting today, WUWM will provide stories on a regular basis, about environmental issues. We begin by meeting the person whose work led to the creation of UWM’s Great Lakes WATER Institute that sits along the shore of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence introduces us to the man who’s considered by some to be the father of Great Lakes studies.

Dr. Clifford Mortimer is nearly a century old, but he’s not the least bit interested in slowing down.

A page from Dr. Mortimer's "Lake Michigan in Motion."

When I telephone to ask for an interview, his first response is, “Well, I’m not much into that sort of thing, but come around and have lunch with me and we’ll see how it goes.”

We meet in a small sitting room at the Milwaukee Catholic Home. Across the hall, an exercise class is underway. Mortimer moved here 18 years ago with his wife. When she died, he decided to stay.

As fellow residents walk or roll by, most call him Professor. He wears a dress shirt and tie, not just when guests come to call, every day.

Mortimer was born and raised in England. His father worked in a printing shop; Mortimer says his mother was a farmer’s daughter.

Growing up, he loved music, and still does, but Mortimer cared more deeply about science. He set his sights on genetics research and completed a PhD in the field just as the Great Depression gripped the world, and jobs were scarce.

“I took a studentship at the freshwater institute. I was given the task of doing water chemistry,” Mortimer says.

World War II erupted and British scientists like Mortimer were called into service. That’s how he fell into the study of how bodies of water move.

“I was in the team that prepared floating breakwaters for the Normandy Landing, measuring waves outside and inside these breakwaters. There were huge steel caissons that were towed and then moored to the ring and so I got bitten by waves, you see,” Mortimer says.

His team moved on to predict storms.

“We put pressure recorders on the seabed and measured the change of pressure as the waves go over. We could predict when it would arrive and how strong it would be,” Mortimer says.

“How accurate were your predictions,” I ask.

“Pretty good,” Mortimer says.

When the war ended, Mortimer recruited the best mechanic on the research team, gathered up miles of cable and other equipment and headed to Lake Windermere.

“We instrumented this lake in northern England with temperature recorders at various depths so you could measure the internal motions in the lake,” Mortimer says.

Everyone sees waves on a lake’s surface; Mortimer tracked and measured the oscillating currents below. He moved on to study other big lakes, including Loch Ness in Scotland and Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. In the 1950s Mortimer paid his first visit to Wisconsin, when he was asked to talk about his research at a conference in Madison. That’s when he realized just 75 miles away, scientists hadn’t yet begun to research the waters of Lake Michigan. Mortimer couldn’t wait to dive in. He had his chance when UW-Madison invited him back as a visiting professor.

“I spent most of my research time on the car ferries on Lake Michigan. We devised equipment where we could take temperature props in depths from moving ships,” Mortimer says.

Dr. Clifford Mortimer

Mortimer moved to Milwaukee for good when UWM asked him to create the Center for Great Lakes Studies. That’s grown to what university leaders hope will become a world-class School of Freshwater Science. Some of Mortimer’s prodigies have also launched careers in lake physics. In fact one heads a Great Lakes research lab in Michigan.

“More than joy, I think satisfaction would be a more appropriate word, is having produced some very able students and influencing a good many others too, Mortimer says.

Students still visit Mortimer, seeking his wisdom. He also poured his knowledge into a book titled, Lake Michigan in Motion, published in 2004.

“I think will become a classic, of course it’s not a best seller,” Mortimer says.

It’s teaming with photographs and charts. Mortimer pages through the book. He points out a drawing of intricately connected loops.

“That’s what it would like if followed the track of a free floating object in surface water,” Mortimer says.

“How would all of these charts and drawing been generated,” I ask.

“By my hand,” Mortimer says.

I learned later, Mortimer is famous for his graphics. Scientists at the water institute say they would not be able to understand the challenges Lake Michigan faces today without Mortimer’s groundbreaking work.

At age 98, he still has more to share. He points to fresh ink stains on his hand. He’s working five to six hours a day on another book.

Mortimer says he hopes to finish it before he has to go.