In Memoriam: Willem Van Rensselaer Malkus

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The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of Willem Van Rensselaer Malkus in Falmouth on May 28 in Falmouth.  He was 92.

Malkus formerly lived in Cambridge and lived in Falmouth in the summers since 1960. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 19, 1923. He studied at the University of Michigan and Cornell University, and after serving three years in the Navy, received a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago in 1950. He was a research associate and physical oceanographer at WHOI until 1958, held a joint professorial appointment with MIT until 1960, was a professor at UCLA until 1969, and was a professor of applied mathematics at MIT until retirement in 1996. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. In 1972, he was elected a Member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Malkus’s first studies concerned natural phenomena: searching for magnetic monopoles in space; and measuring the electric potential generated by ocean currents in Earth’s magnetic field. However, he soon became known for inventing creative approaches to fundamental problems in fluid mechanics, many generated by laboratory experiments. These problems include discrete transitions in the heat flow produced by cellular motions, the magnetic field generated by flow in a rotating sphere of liquid metal, and explosive jumps to turbulence by shear flows. Each of these fields has significant branches of study initiated by his experiments and theories. Malkus stimulated gifted colleagues to develop original contributions to the problems that he initially studied, and his generous and enthusiastic delight while describing their triumphs was central to his personality.

Malkus and George Veronis formed the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics (GFD) Summer Program at WHOI in 1959 and ran it for more than 20 years. The GFD program continues to the present, and has produced an entire community of scholars, with many student alumni now leaders in their fields. In 2008 the GFD program’s founding members were awarded the Excellence in Geophysical Education Award by the American Geophysical Union.

He was strongly influenced by his mother, Alida Sims Malkus, an accomplished author and daring traveler, who raised Willem and his brother Hubert alone through the Great Depression. His passion for fluid dynamics was matched by a love of sailing the waters that surround Woods Hole, where he was always eager to show what strong winds and currents could teach about dynamical systems. In later years, with an unsteady gait on land, he remained at ease under sail in Vineyard Sound.

Malkus is survived by his cherished wife of 51 years, Ulla C. Malkus of Falmouth, Mass.; children David S. Malkus of Madison, WI, Steven W. Malkus of Falmouth, Mass., Karen E. Malkus-Benjamin of Brewster, Mass., and Per N. Malkus of Carrboro, NC; and grandchildren Christopher Malkus, Annelise Malkus, Byron Malkus, Renata Malkus, Michael Herrmann, Esme Herrmann, and Kira Malkus. 

A memorial service will be held at 2:00 p.m., on September 10, 2016 at the Church of the Messiah, 22 Church Street, Woods Hole, Mass., 02543.

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