A Brief History of Gustavus Hinrichs, Discoverer of the DERECHO

by Ray Wolf


Gustavus Hinrichs


Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs (1836-1923) was Danish born (current day Germany) and trained as a chemist at the University of Copenhagen and the Polytechnic School in Copenhagen. He emigrated to the United States in 1861 and settled in Davenport, Iowa, where he taught foreign languages in the local school system. Shortly thereafter he joined the University of Iowa, initially as a teacher of Modern Languages and then as a professor of physical sciences.

His early efforts of note were in the field of mineralogy where he did pioneering work on the structure of crystals. His ideas on crystalline structure were well ahead of his time and had bearing on the later discovery of the structure of the atom. Hinrichs was one of several scientists credited with the discovery of the Periodic System of Elements during the 1860s.

One of Hinrichs's published books, Programme der Atommechanik, first issued in 1867, was ground-breaking for his theories that an analogy existed between astronomy and chemistry, leading to a general principle on the mechanics of atoms. This hypothesis held that the primary matter called pantogens, with its atoms called panatoms, explains the numerical relations of atomic weights and gives a simple classification of the elements. He and his ideas were generally well received in Europe, but the sensitive and high strung Hinrichs was not as acclaimed in the U.S. at the time.

His varied work in a range of physical sciences continued at the University of Iowa where he studied pieces from the great Iowa meteor of February 12, 1875,a notable occurrence which was visible in four states. He also started the first state weather service. In addition to chemistry, Hinrichs studied and published in physics, astronomy, meteorology, and geology. He was quite prolific, authoring an extensive number of books and articles in different languages, as he was fluent in Danish, French, German, Italian, and English, and knew some Greek and Latin. In all respects, Hinrichs was a true man of science showing an almost religious-like zealousness in his pursuits and efforts to share his findings with the professional scientific community, his students, and the general public.

Gustavus Hinrichs joined the faculty at the University of Iowa on August 13, 1863 as teacher of Modern Languages. In June 1864, he was named professor and taught physical science in the Department of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy. He also became director of the laboratory. As a professor, Hinrichs was noted for his aggressive campaign to build a world-class science program, eloquent lectures, laboratory work and teaching, prolific writing of professional and public articles and textbooks, and his promotion of Iowa City as the location for the state's medical college and of public funding for it.

In 1865 the University was reorganized during the presidency of Oliver M. Spencer. Under Spencer, emphasis in education shifted toward the sciences in the Collegiate Department where Hinrichs was appointed to teach both physics and chemistry. To a certain extent, Hinrichs was building upon the post Civil War interest in science and its practical applications, but his almost maniacal passion for laboratory teaching, and for advertising his method, soon made his program known throughout the country and the world. The laboratory was one of the top four in the U.S. Hinrichs was the first to develop and use lab manuals in his teaching, a practice which continues today.

While Hinrichs was a gifted teacher and internationally recognized chemist, he was also a volatile, abrasive, and sometimes a vindictive man. Under University Presidents Spencer and James Black, Hinrichs's program in laboratory chemistry and physics had prospered mightily. All students were required to take two years of physical science, so Hinrichs was awarded two assistants; and the state board of regents provided funds for North Hall in 1867, the entire first floor of which was given over to undergraduate laboratories. Hinrichs inspected laboratories in several of the finest universities in the east in order to design the best possible facilities for Iowa. Despite this success, or maybe because of it, Hinrichs's arrogance made him no friends on the Iowa faculty. Some faculty even thought him egotistical, tactless, and mistrustful, but he had support for his efforts from his students and the local community.

George Thacher, the president from 1871 to 1877, strongly favored teaching the classical languages and literatures. Thacher could see little of value in scientific courses. Thus Thacher began to dismantle Hinrichs's program. In his reorganization of the curriculum in 1873, Thacher cut the budget in physics and chemistry severely, reduced the requirement from two years to two terms (there were three terms in the school year), and saw to it that requirements in classical and foreign languages and literatures were increased. In addition, teaching of astronomy was moved from Hinrich's pervue to that of Nathan Leonard, a professor of Mathematics and Astronomy. Hinrichs lost both financial support and his assistants.

These changes led to a well-publicized struggle between the University (particularly Thacher and Leonard) and Hinrichs, who became frustrated and dismayed after so much arduous work spent building the program. In fact, the dispute between Thacher and Leonard and Hinrichs became so negative and so public that the state legislature felt it necessary to send an investigating committee to Iowa City. Both proferssors were admonished for their behavior, and Hinrichs was directed to give the President the respect the position deserves.

With a decreased workload and fewer interactions with students, he turned his interest to weather and his weather station (see below) and avoided interactions with the faculty. The negativity between Hinrichs, his peers and the University continued to increase as the stellar science program he developed faded. A new University President, Josiah Pickard, and most of the faculty filed charges against Hinrichs regarding his unprofessional actions and attitudes toward other faculty members and the University president. The Board of Regents came to Iowa City to investigate the charges and determined them to be true. Thus Hinrichs was dismissed from the Collegiate Faculty in 1885 and the Medical Faculty in 1886 for general obstreperousness. After Hinrich's was dismissed for being confrontational and abusive, he called the hospital (which he had fought to get located in Iowa City) a "slaughter house," and claimed that operating surgeons at the clinic had been drunk while attending to patients. The investigating committee found that "the charges originated in jealousy and spite and are without a particle of foundation in fact."

Hinrichs left the University of Iowa on March 2, 1886, following 22 years of service. He moved to St. Louis in 1889, and served as professor in the St. Louis University Chemistry Department within the College of Pharmacy. In 1903, St. Louis University named him professor of chemistry within the Medical College. He served in both capacities until his retirement in 1907. Hinrichs continued researching his many areas of interest until his death on February 14, 1923, at age 86.

On August 27, 1875, Dr. Hinrichs, along with several others, organized and became charter members of the Iowa Academy of Science. Hinrichs authored the Academy's first publication which was a climate summary of the end of 1875 and an outlook for early 1876. The first regular annual meeting of the Academy convened in the natural history room of the State University at Iowa City on June 23, 1876. Hinrichs presented maps and diagrams of the severe hail storm in Iowa, on April 12, 1876, and a second presentation on "The Constitution of Water from the Deep Lying Rocks of Iowa".

Hinrich's home and weather station

Gustavus Hinrichs instituted first state weather service in Iowa in 1875. Ironically, the decline of his science teaching program provided time for the development of his weather research efforts.

His first observatory was located at Church and Clinton streets in Iowa City, Iowa, and later at the University of Iowa president's residence. He had another observatory in the barn at his residence at Capitol and Market streets and a weather station was atop his house (left). This reflected his keen interest in meteorology. Hinrichs displayed flag signals at his home which indicated barometer readings and were considered weather predictions by Iowa City residents.

Hinrichs was the director of the service from 1875 to 1889 which was originally staffed with volunteers. He used his own money and donations from local citizens to support the project, until state funding was finally available in 1878 for limited purchases of equipement.

Picture source: http://iagenweb.org/johnson/6postcard.htm

American Mineralogist, The Crystallographic Work of Gustavus Hinrichs, http://www.minsocam.org/MSA/collectors_corner/arc/hinrichs.htm.

Annals of a University of Iowa Department, From Natural Philosophy to Physics and Astronomy.  James P. Wells, Depart of Physics and Astronomy, University of Iowa, 1980.

Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, Hinrichs, Gustavus Detlef, http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/uipress/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=175.

A Century of Caring: The Health Sciences at the University of Iowa, 1850-1950: College of Medicine First Faculty, http://www.uihealthcare.com/depts/medmuseum/galleryexhibits/centuryofcaring/collegeofmedicine/03firstfaculty.html.

Dissent at the University of Iowa: Gustavus Detlev Hinrichs - Chemist and Polymath, W.R. Palmer, http://khimiya.org/pdfs/KHIMIYA_16_6_PALMER.pdf.

English at Iowa in the Nineteenth Century, John C. Gerber, From Books at Iowa 51 (November 1989), http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/spec-coll/Bai/gerber.htm.

Gustavus Hinrichs Papers, http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/spec-coll/archives/guides/RG99.0039.html.

Hinrichs, Gustavus D. (1836-1923). Papers - Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, http://www.library.illinois.edu/ihx/archon/?p=collections/controlcard&id=698 .

The History of Atmospheric Sciences in Iowa, Waite, P.J., Proc. Iowa Academy Science 82(2), 88-93 (1975), also
United States Climatology Chronology, http://weather.nmsu.edu/USClimat.htm, Paul Waite, retired Iowa State Climtologist.

http://www.bautz.de/bbkl/h/hinrichs_g_d.shtml - A German biography.

The Original Publication Describing a Derecho

Iowa Weather Bulletin Volume 1 Number 1, Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs, Iowa City, Iowa 1878
Copy provided by the Department of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries. Some pages may be difficult to read due to the age of the document and the scanning process.

This publication provides a description of several geophysical phenonmena and measurements, one of which was likely a squall line and may possibly have been a derecho (page 3).

  1. Cover page
  2. International Symbols and Definitions
  3. Thunderstorm of July 31, 1877 with map
  4. Earthquake of November 15, 1877 text
  5. Earthquake of November 15, 1877 map
  6. Press Bulletin for October 1877 with map
  7. Press Bulletin for November 1877
  8. Graphics, Central Station, November 1877
  9. Graphics, Central Station, December 1877
  10. Press Bulletin for December 1877
  11. Rain Map of Iowa for 1876
  12. Rain Map of Iowa for 1877

The First Formal Publication using the Term Derecho

Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs, 1888: Tornadoes and Derechos, American Meteorological Journal, pp. 306-317 and 341-349.

In his early writings at the University of Iowa, Hinrichs described what he termed Derechos using an analysis of surface reports from an observer network he developed in the state of Iowa. He plotted damage maps from the reports and found that the characteristics of damage caused by derechos was different than tornadoes. His ability to draw scientific value from such observations is similar to the ability shown in more recent time by Dr. T. Fujita, who more fully described the details of downbursts, a damage-causing meteorological feature that occurs within derechos, using the modern technology available 100 years later.

In 1883 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Minneapolis, MN, Hinrichs first introduced the term Derecho to the scientific community. Five years later, he was invited to make a submission on tornadoes to the American Meteorological Journal, and published the paper cited above which is the first formal publication using the term Derecho.

The description of a derecho by Hinrichs in that paper is uncanny given the limited observations available to him. He describes the derecho as the "straight blow of the prairies" in contrast to the circular winds associated with tornadoes. Hinrichs further described the derecho as a "violently progressing mass of cold air, moving destructively onward in slightly diverging straight lines, (in Iowa) generally towards the southeast..." His description of "cold and dry northwesterly air striking obliquely downward and displacing the hot and moist southeasterly current, generally by striking under the same." indicates some understanding of the three dimensional aspect of derechos. Additionally, Hinrichs observed that in Iowa, tornadoes tend to be a spring time phenomena while derechos are more commonly observed in summer, a climatological assessment that is observed today.

Knowledge of derechos would languish for nearly a century until Robert Johns published his study of severe weather events that moved from northwest to southeast causing widespread wind damage. It was Johns who resurrected the use of the term derecho (see next section).

Hinrichs was known to have rigorous scientific standards and an acerbic pen. This is evidenced by the controversy between Hinrichs and Lt. John P. Finley and the U.S. Signal Corps regarding events in Iowa described as tornadoes by Finley and deemed to be straight line wind damage from derechos by Hinrichs. Even today with the availability of Doppler radar and severe weather spotter networks, the discrimination of tornado vs. straight line wind damage in derechos is not trivial. But Hinrichs documents many events Finley cited as tornadic which likely were not based on the characteristics of the damage. Indeed his arguments are supported by our understanding of such systems today which has increased significantly since the late 1970s. Finally, Hinrichs shares his view of exaggerated media coverage and insurance company advertising with respect to the tornado threat.

How the Term Derecho Came into Modern Usage

Although Gustavus Hinrichs first defined the term derecho in the late 18th century, the term remained unused in the meteorological community until the 1980s, nearly 100 years later. To learn how the term derecho came into modern usage, read the story "Origin and Evolution of the Term 'Derecho' as a Severe Weather Event" by Robert Johns, retired forecaster from the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center.


This document was developed with the assistance of Robert Johns, National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center, and archivists at the Department of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.  For more information about the science and human impact of Derechos, see http://www.spc.noaa.gov/misc/AbtDerechos/derechofacts.