Morisawa, Marie (earth scientist)


(1919-1994) American Geomorphologist

Geomorphology is a subdiscipline of geology that, like others, was historically purely descriptive but which has yet to be fully realized in quantitative terms. There was a revolution in geomorphology in the late 1950s and early 1960s to establish quantitative methods and Marie Morisawa was part of that revolution. This work involves measuring the size of features like watersheds, slopes, and stream channels, and to analyze them both in terms of impact on larger systems and statistical analysis of stability. The problem is that the number of schools with that capability is small and in many places geomorphology remains descriptive. Marie Morisawa, therefore, was free to choose any aspect of geomorphology in which to specialize, as there were really no saturated areas so she chose them all. She worked on talus slopes in the Rocky Mountains, the geomorphology of active fault zones (Wasatch Fault, for example), geomorphol-ogy and plate tectonics, coastal geomorphology, geologic hazards (earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides), and environmental geomorphology, of which she was one of the founders. Part of this fame was her pioneering work on the 1959 Heb-gen Lake earthquake which caused a massive landslide that dammed a river, producing a huge lake. By 1970, this study of environmental geomor-phology had turned into enough of a movement to begin an annual symposium at her home school of State University of New York at Bing-hamton, which had established itself as a center for geomorphology. Morisawa figured prominently in this reputation.

Marie Morisawa is probably best known for her extensive work on her first love of river systems. Her doctoral work on quantitative geomor-phology of streams in Pennsylvania was pioneering and set a new standard for stream studies. She studied channel development and stability as well as channel shifting in addition to watersheds. An example of this work is her paper, “Distribution of Streamflow Direction in Drainage Systems.” Her interest crossed from the purely scientific to the aesthetic and what might even be called spiritual.

Marie Morisawa was born on November 2, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio. Her father was Japanese and her mother was American. She attended Hunter College of the City University of New York system and earned a bachelor of science degree in mathematics in 1941. She then obtained a master of arts degree in theology and held several jobs before returning to school to switch careers to geology. She attended the University of Wyoming at Laramie, where she earned a master of science degree in 1952. Morisawa then moved to Columbia University in New York where she earned a Ph.D. in 1960 as an advisee of Arthur Strahler. She was part of a U.S. Office of Naval Research project to develop methods in quantitative geomorphology. During her graduate career, she also served as an instructor at Bryn Mawr College from 1955 to 1959. In 1959, Morisawa joined the faculty at the University of Montana, but moved to the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C., in 1961. In 1963, she moved back to academia by accepting a position at Anti-och College. She then moved to the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1970, where she spent the rest of her career. She was a Ful-bright Scholar in India in 1987-1988 and a geologist in residence at Carleton College in Minnesota in 1990. Morisawa retired in 1990 to professor emeritus. She was still active in the department and it was on the drive from her home to her office that she was in a single-car accident that claimed her life on June 10, 1994.

Marie Morisawa led a varied career. She published many scientific articles in international journals, professional volumes, and governmental reports. She is perhaps best known for her eight books, which include a popular 1975 textbook entitled, Our Geologic Environment as well as Streams: Their Dynamics and Morphology in 1968, and Geomorphology Laboratory Manual in 1977. She also wrote the popular book, Evaluating Riverscapes, in 1971. In recognition of her research and teaching contributions to geology, Morisawa received several honors and awards. She received the Distinguished Alumna Award from University of Wyoming, and the Outstanding Educator Award from the Association of Women Geoscientists, among others.

Morisawa was of great service to the profession and the public. She served on numerous committees and working groups, as well as councilor for the Geological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Quaternary Association. She was also chair and board member for the Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology Division of the Geological Society of America numerous times. She also served numerous editorial roles including founder and editor in chief of Geomorphology, which was begun in 1986. Mori-sawa also served in many advisory capacities for town planning both around Binghamton and in Fire Island, New York, where she conducted research.

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