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James (Jim) J. Morgan, 1932–2020

Published on Wednesday, October 21, 2020 | 6:34 am
James (Jim) J. Morgan

James (Jim) J. Morgan, an environmental scientist who previously served as Caltech’s dean of students and later as vice president for student affairs, passed away on September 19 at the age of 88.

Morgan, who was Caltech’s Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Environmental Engineering Science, Emeritus, was born to Irish immigrants on June 23, 1932 in New York, and spent his childhood in the Bronx. In 1954, Morgan earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Manhattan College, where he developed an interest in engineering challenges associated with water treatment.

Upon graduation, Morgan accepted a fellowship to study at the University of Michigan; he earned a master’s in environmental health engineering in 1956. Morgan’s studies in environmental engineering were concurrent with a growing national interest in environmental issues, including chemical pollution. The first major federal law to address water pollution was enacted in 1948, and in 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which documented the environmental impact of pesticides and ultimately led to the nationwide ban of DDT a decade later.

After earning his master’s degree, Morgan took a civil-engineering faculty position at the University of Illinois, where he taught courses in the design and mixing of plain concrete, surveying, water-distribution systems, and various other topics, as needed. He also became involved in several research projects, including one to sample and analyze river water for synthetic detergents, which were newly recognized as chemical pollutants.

His growing interest in understanding water chemistry led him to Thurston Larson, who was at the time the head of the water chemistry section of the Illinois State Water Survey; Larson recommended that Morgan connect with a young untenured assistant professor at Harvard University named Werner Stumm, who was then making a name for himself in the field. “So I applied to Harvard and was admitted,” Morgan recalled in a 2014 interview. He became Stumm’s first PhD student.

At Harvard, Morgan’s research on the chemical aspects of coagulation changed the way people thought about the chemistry of water treatment, and earned him an award for best first presentation from the American Chemical Society. For his dissertation, he researched the chemistry of manganese oxidation states in water. He earned a master of arts degree in 1962 and a PhD in 1964.

After a brief stint at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Morgan was recruited to Caltech in 1965 as an associate professor of environmental health engineering. He was later named Goldberger Professor, a title he held from 1987 until his retirement in 2000.

At Caltech, his research focused on the chemistry of aquatic environments and water treatment, and in particular on the scientific bases for establishing criteria and standards for water-quality protection.

Other Caltech faculty were similarly invested in environmental issues at the time. In the late 1950s, Caltech professor of bio-organic chemistry Arie Jan Haagen-Smit made the discovery that ozone from automobiles was the main culprit behind Los Angeles’s crippling smog problem; in the 1960s and ’70s, Louis E. Nohl Professor of Chemical Engineering John Seinfeld developed a formula to explain the chemical mechanism behind ozone formation, and then created a first-of-its-kind atmospheric chemical-transport model for Los Angeles. Meanwhile, research by Caltech geochemist Clair Patterson exposed the prevalence and toxicity of lead pollution from industrial sources, ultimately leading to the end of leaded gasoline for cars.

While Haagen-Smit, Seinfeld, and Patterson studied air quality, Morgan’s attention remained on water. In 1970, he and Stumm—who were collaborators and friends for nearly four decades, until Stumm’s death in 1999—published the textbook Aquatic Chemistry, which to this day remains the standard reference on the subject and has been cited more than 25,000 times.

The book is a printed reminder of one of Morgan’s strengths as a scientist: his ability to have a wide breadth of understanding of a variety of topics, and to keep important information about those topics always at his fingertips.

“It was all about being able to understand and predict the chemistry you find in nature that can be affected by human activities,” says Dianne Newman, Gordon M. Binder/Amgen Professor of Biology and Geobiology. “He formalized the available information in a way that made it very general and powerful. You don’t have to be an expert on one metal or one ligand. If you read his textbook, there are tables and tables of constants, and you can make predictions about what will happen to a given metal in a given waterbody if you know something about its composition. Aquatic Chemistry is a tremendous resource. Jim came up with general principles and ways of organizing a ton of information that were very coherent and enabled people to use it broadly.”

For example, arsenic naturally leaches into water from rocks and can contaminate some sources of drinking water. In such cases, treatment plants add the chemical ferric chloride (FeCl3) to the source water. Why? Because, as Aquatic Chemistry tells us, the iron from the ferric chloride will rapidly change its form and precipitate as a mineral that binds arsenic, thus drawing the arsenic out of the water.

After co-authoring Aquatic Chemistry, Morgan collaborated with graduate student François Morel (MS ’68, PhD ’72), now professor of geosciences at Princeton, on a computer program for doing chemical calculations called REDEQL (RED for “redox” and EQL for “equilibrium”).

“I said to Jim, ‘Why do we do that by hand? We should write a computer program to do that,'” recalls Morel, who spent long hours designing the program with Morgan in his office; he sketched on a blackboard while Morgan offered input from an armchair. REDEQL, which was supported by the Environmental Protection Agency, was among the first programs of its kind, and has become foundational to almost every geochemical or environmental computer program that has since been developed to predict the composition of a solution.

These accomplishments all occurred by the early 1970s, when Morgan was in his late 30s.

“Jim was a giant in the field of aquatic chemistry,” Seinfeld says. “He was the first editor of the ACS [American Chemical Society] journal Environmental Science and TechnologyES&T rapidly became the leading journal in the field under Jim’s editorship.”

“Jim was incredibly prominent early,” says Paul Wennberg, R. Stanton Avery Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering. “He was recognized as the leader of his field. And he used that in the right way, to elevate others. That was really a statement about his values.”

“Werner and Jim shared an immense enthusiasm for science and an unparalleled spirit of generosity toward their junior colleagues,” concurs Janet Hering, director of Eawag, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. Hering worked as a postdoc with Stumm in the late ’80s to early ’90s, and later joined Caltech’s faculty from 1996 to 2006, where she collaborated with Morgan. (In addition, Hering and Newman both earned doctoral degrees with Morel at MIT, making them Morgan’s “academic grandchildren.”)

Outside of work, Morgan was a devoted family man who had a great love of Irish literature, particularly James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, Hering recalls. “In talking about science, Jim made frequent references to writers and philosophers and often used the river as a metaphor for the flow of progress in environmental science and engineering,” she says.

Morgan also played basketball in his spare time until his late 60s. “Jim was quite an athlete,” Seinfeld recalls. “In those early days, Jim played basketball at the Caltech gym. I used to play as well. He was a ferocious rebounder. You didn’t want to get in his path on the way to a rebound.”

It was through basketball that Morgan met Gordon Treweek (MS ’71, PhD ’75), who was at the time a graduate student in applied mathematics. Treweek spotted Morgan, Morel, and George Jackson (BS ’69, MS ’70, PhD ’76) in need of a fourth player for a game of two-on-two, and introduced himself. This chance encounter altered the course of Treweek’s career.

Treweek, who continued to play regularly with Morgan and his colleagues, eventually realized that applied mathematics was not his calling, and Morgan advised him to get in touch with the executive officer of Caltech’s Environmental Science and Engineering option, Jack McKee. (McKee helped create the Environmental Science and Engineering program at Caltech, and had recruited Morgan to the Institute.) Treweek and McKee, both veterans from the Army Corps of Engineers, connected quickly. “We sat around and told war stories for a couple minutes, then he called his secretary in to draw up the paperwork for me to transfer into ESE,” Treweek says. “Jim Morgan became my thesis advisor.”

Through basketball and science, the two became lifelong friends. In 2002, Treweek established an environmental science and engineering scholarship in Morgan’s name. “What a gentleman he was,” Treweek remembers. “I met with him and I said, ‘I’ve dedicated a scholarship in your name in appreciation.’ He said, ‘Thank you very much, but we don’t want to forget Jack McKee!'” A few years later, Treweek also established a scholarship in McKee’s name.

Colleagues remember Morgan as the sort of person who gave others a smile and a boost of confidence when it was needed.

“When I first arrived [in 1998], Caltech was pretty intimidating,” says Wennberg, who knew of Morgan’s achievements in aquatic chemistry long before he met him in person. “But Jim wasn’t. He would wander the halls with a big smile on his face, greeting people. He was one of the people who made Caltech a welcoming place to new faculty.”

“Jim Morgan and Caltech changed my life,” says Morel. “I didn’t come from a family of academics. I became a professor because of my time with Jim.” When he finished his doctoral degree at Caltech, Morel found himself at loose ends, unsure of where to go next. Morgan helped guide Morel to a career in academia, first at MIT and for the past 24 years at Princeton.

Dianne Newman knew all about Morgan before coming to Caltech in 2000, having earned her PhD under Morel at MIT. She recalls that he went out of his way to encourage and support young faculty members.

Soon after arriving at Caltech, Newman attended a seminar with senior faculty members from her division. When it came time for questions, she began inching her hand up; however, as a junior faculty member and fresh hire, she was too intimidated to call more attention to herself. Then Morgan stepped in.

“Before I could chicken out, Jim saw me, drew the speaker’s attention to me, and said, ‘Dianne has a question.'” Nervous, Newman began to hesitate, saying her question was not terribly good; before she could continue, Morgan cut in, “made a wonderful joke of it, and said to the speaker, ‘Oh, whenever she starts like that, she gives you a real zinger,'” she recalls.

That “tiny little boost” helped Newman to get over her initial shyness, she says; she has tried in her own career to similarly help her mentees.

“Jim’s example taught me how important it is to actively encourage my students and postdocs to confront their insecurities,” she says. “After that, I made a point of sitting in the front row with my students and elbowing them to ask questions.” One of her early graduate students took the lesson so firmly to heart that she started questioning a speaker at an international academic conference, and was offered a job from the speaker as a result.

During his time at Caltech, Morgan served in several administrative roles, including as dean of students from 1972–75, acting dean of graduate studies from 1981–84, and vice president for student affairs from 1980–89. “You could not imagine a more perfect person to have such a role because he was such a kind and understanding person, and he treated everyone that way,” Wennberg says of Morgan’s time as dean of students. “He did see the service to the Institute as an important part of his academic duty.”

Morgan was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke Prize for Water Science and Technology from the National Water Research Institute. In 1999, Morgan and Stumm were awarded the Stockholm Water Prize in recognition of their outstanding contributions to aquatic chemistry that led to the development of techniques for treatment of wastewater and drinking water.

James Morgan was preceded in death by his wife, Jean Laurie McIntosh Morgan, and is survived by his six children: Jenny Tumas, Johanna Morgan, Eve Morgan Fletcher, Michael Joseph Morgan, Martha Morgan, and Sarah Morgan-Arnold. He also is survived by his sister Anne Thompson; nieces Terri Thompson Mink and Dana Thompson Sullivan; grandchildren Aistis, Aidan, Aelwyn, Zoe, Eliah, Sidra, Morgan, Avery, Emily, and Theo; and great-grandchildren Audra, Alden, and Betty. A website to share memories about Morgan has been established by his friends and colleagues and can be found at

An abbreviated version of this obituary was originally published on September 22, 2020.

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