University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

School of Freshwater Sciences

Clifford H. Mortimer: 1911-2010 Freshwater legend was first director of UWM Center for Great Lakes Studies

At age 99, Clifford Mortimer was still writing scientific articles.
[Photo: Art Brooks]

Clifford H. Mortimer, the first director of the Center for Great Lakes Studies (CGLS) at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM), died peacefully on May 11, 2010, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at the age of 99.

The CGLS, which Mortimer directed from 1966 until 1978, is the predecessor of UWM’s Great Lakes WATER Institute and the newly established School of Freshwater Sciences.

Colleagues describe Mortimer as a gentlemanly, brilliant scientist whose research career was as broad as it was long.

“He was a renaissance guy—he did work in genetics, soil chemistry, plankton, waves…,” says former WATER Institute director Tony Remsen.

“Clifford had a great sense of humor, and was always a total gentleman, always dressed in a shirt and tie,” says Val Klump, current director of the WATER Institute. “He was the epitome of the old-school limnologist.”

Mortimer was born into a Quaker family in 1911 in England, and later lived in Germany and Scotland. While serving as director of the Scottish Marine Biological Station in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he visited Wisconsin several times—first as an invited speaker at the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography’s (ASLO) annual meeting in Madison, and later as a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Through these visits, Mortimer gained access to Lake Michigan temperature data collected by utilities at their water intakes. The data prompted and enabled him to study the lake’s internal motions—and launched his research interest in the Great Lakes.

In 1966, that interest led Mortimer to accept a position at UWM as a Distinguished Professor of Zoology and director of the newly formed CGLS. There, he quickly went to work establishing what would become an internationally recognized institution for Great Lakes research.

Clifford Mortimer at his CGLS office in 1974.
[Photo courtesy Art Brooks]

“He really started the Great Lakes research program in Wisconsin. Prior to that, there was very little Great Lakes work going on,” says Val Klump, director of the WATER Institute.

“Clifford Mortimer and (first associate director) Al Beeton built up the place scientifically and attracted students from all over the world,” says Art Brooks, a retired UWM Professor of Biological Sciences and Senior Scientist at CGLS who worked with Mortimer.

Among Mortimer’s early graduate students at UWM were Everett Fee, now editor-in-chief of the journal Limnology and Oceanography, and David Schwab, now a physical oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Fee recalls his mentor as a kind, unpretentious person who taught him how to be a human being as much as he taught him how to do science.

“He taught me that one of the secrets of success in science was knowing when to give up and let go of something, and when to be a bull dog when there’s more to be learned,” says Fee.

“He kept pushing all of us,” says Remsen. “By example, he made us be better than we might have otherwise been. That’s a sign of a good mentor and leader.”

Ship and shop have lasting impact
Many who knew Mortimer recall his talent for designing devices that would allow him to collect the data he needed. “He was the type who liked to invent and build things,” says Remsen. “He brought all these odds and ends over from Great Britain and he’d break them apart periodically and use them to build something else.”

His appreciation of scientific gadgetry led Mortimer to insist on outfitting the CGLS with a complete machine shop where custom-made instruments could be built. More than four decades later, the shop—which has grown and relocated over the years—continues to provide crucial support for research conducted at the WATER Institute and School of Freshwater Sciences.

Under Mortimer and Beeton’s tenure, the CGLS also secured the research vessel Neeskay, which, like the machine shop, is still in operation today. Formerly an Army cargo boat, the 71-foot Neeskay has set sail thousands of times in the past 40 years, carrying thousands of scientists, staff, students, and teachers on to the water and towards a better understanding of the Great Lakes.

Although Mortimer’s time at the CGLS was significant, it was but a midway point in a long and distinguished career that began decades earlier and lasted decades beyond.

Mortimer earned a B.S. in zoology from Manchester University in England in 1932, and a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Berlin in Germany in 1935.

From 1935 to 1941, he held a research position at the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA) on Lake Windermere in England. Two papers based on his work from this time (“The exchange of dissolved substances between mud and water in lakes, Parts I-II and Parts III-IV” in the Journal of Ecology) are considered ecology citation classics.

Klump recalls citing those papers in his own dissertation work in the late 1970s. “It was interesting to read his papers—which were done about 40 years earlier—and to see how much insight he had at the time,” he says.

D-Day wave predictions
Mortimer’s time at the FBA was interrupted during World War II when he was recruited by the Royal Naval Scientific Service. He spent the next five years, from 1941 to 1946, working in the Oceanographic Group of the Admiralty Research Laboratory, where his duties included studying waves and tides in the English Channel and carrying out shore patrols with other scientists, including Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

“He did outstanding work on internal wave dynamics,” says Beeton. “He was the world authority on that.”

Mortimer and his knowledge of waves, it turns out, even played a role in a pivotal event of World War II: he helped predict wave conditions for the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy.


In 1958, Clifford Mortimer was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, putting him in the company of such scientific greats as Newton, Darwin, and Einstein.
[Photo: Royal Society]

In 1946, Mortimer returned to the FBA and remained there until becoming director of the Scottish Marine Biological Station in 1956, a position he held until taking on the directorship at the CGLS in 1966. He retired from the latter position in 1978, and from his academic role at UWM in 1981.

Retirement didn’t slow Mortimer down, however, and he continued on with his research as Distinguished Professor Emeritus.

In the years following his official retirement, Mortimer received several honors recognizing his scientific achievements. In 1981, ASLO granted him life membership, and in 1985, UWM awarded him an honorary doctoral degree, as did the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in 1987. 

These honors were on top of another he had received years earlier: in 1958, he was elected to the Royal Society, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth’s national academy of science. In becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, Mortimer joined other scientific greats such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein.

Later, in 1995, Mortimer received yet another prestigious honor—ASLO’s Lifetime Achievement Award—in recognition of his contributions across the disciplines of biology, chemistry, and physics, and for his leadership and general commitment to excellence.

Prolific author
Mortimer, however, still had much more to achieve in his lifetime. He continued publishing his work—often based on analyses of data collected decades earlier—right through his 80s and 90s.

“He’d always be working on another manuscript,” says Beeton. “He was the gold standard of productivity late in life,” says Fee.

Mortimer did many of his calculations, his writing, and his graphs by hand. And when blindness in one eye and a cataract in the other threatened his ability to do his work, he once again used his inventive skills to devise a solution: “He built a contraption that he put on his head with two magnifying glasses in front of the ‘good’ eye,” says Remsen.

Clifford Mortimer in 2001, at age 90.
[Photo: Art Brooks]

In 2004, Mortimer saw the publication of his book, Lake Michigan in Motion: Responses of an Inland Sea to Weather, Earth-Spin, and Human Activities, by the University of Wisconsin Press. Over 300 pages long, the book covers topics ranging from geology, water chemistry, and ecology to human influences and the internal motions of waves and currents. Royalties from the book support UWM’s Clifford H. Mortimer Limnology Scholarship Fund.

In 2006, at the age of 95, Mortimer published the most recent of his 85 papers, “Internal Oscillations and Related Internal Beat Pulsations and Surges in Lakes Michigan and Ontario,” in Limnology and Oceanography. Fee calls the work cutting-edge science that earned its place in the top-notch journal.

Mortimer was putting the final touches on one more manuscript—this one on the factors that determine density in freshwater—when he passed away at 99. “His mind was clear and sharp right up until the day he died,” said Remsen. Mortimer’s colleagues are working to see the paper through to publication—a final tribute to a remarkable scientist.

Clifford Mortimer is survived by two daughters, five grandchildren, two great grandchildren (and another on the way), and many friends and colleagues around the world. He had a large extended family here at UWM, where he touched and inspired the lives of many. We will always remember him with great fondness and admiration.

A Great Man of the Inland Seas - July 2009 interview with Mortimer on WUWM
Scientist profile - Mortimer's profile, including a bibliography of his scientific work
Lake Michigan in Motion - Mortimer's 2004 book