University of Iowa professor coined 'derecho,' among broad research contributions

Gustavus Hinrichs made an impact on science 'either because of his personality or in spite of it'

University of Iowa professor Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs. (F.W. Kent Collection/University of Iowa Libraries)
University of Iowa professor Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs. (F.W. Kent Collection/University of Iowa Libraries)

IOWA CITY — In neat cursive 143 years ago, University of Iowa professor Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs wrote in an Iowa Weather Service special bulletin about “The thunderstorm of July 31, 1877.”

It was, by his telling, “quite severe over an area of 20,000 square miles, about 2/5 of all Iowa.”

True to what historians have characterized as his “abrasive” nature, Hinrichs criticized the equivalent of the National Weather Service of the time for, “as usual,” failing to predict the storm — writing the service instead called for “partially cloudy weather and occasional light rains.”

Although Hinrichs didn’t mention the word “derecho” in that report, he mapped out in detail the violent and straight-wind conditions he later would use to define the term he crafted as a sort of rebuttal to weather researcher John P. Finley, who was lumping the events in with tornadoes.

The now infamous term derecho this month was thrust into many Iowans’ lexicon when a devastating one of historic proportions blasted the state Aug. 10, leaving hundreds of thousands with significant property damage and without electricity, internet, cell service, and access to food, water and other resources.

In the 1880s, when Hinrichs read Finley’s report about tornadoes in Iowa, “he was quite upset,” according to a 2007 report by Robert Johns, a retired National Weather Service forecaster who helped revive the derecho designation in 1987 after it went dormant for nearly a century.

“It appeared that Finley’s listing of Iowa tornadoes included many events that were not tornadoes,” according to Johns. “Hinrichs realized that many of these events were non-tornadic convectively induced winds associated with a violently progressive mass of cold air.”


So Hinrichs began calling them “derechos,” which is Spanish for “direct or straight ahead.”

“This term could be considered as an analog to the term tornado, which is also of Spanish origin,” according to Johns.

Hinrichs first introduced the derecho reference to the scientific community at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1883 — while he still was on the UI faculty. Five years later, he submitted a paper on “tornadoes and derechos” to the American Meteorological Journal, marking the first formal publication of the weather designation.

In that 1888 publication, Hinrichs referenced the 1877 storm from his special bulletin a decade earlier and described a derecho as the “straight blow of the prairies,” contrasting circular winds of tornadoes. Additionally, he characterized a derecho as a “violently progressing mass of cold air, moving destructively onward in slightly diverging straight lines, (in Iowa) generally toward the southeast.”

He noted Iowa tornadoes trended toward spring, while derechos erupted more in summer.

Hinrichs aimed to build ‘world-class science program’ at UI

Although Hinrichs’ history with Iowa resurfaced this past week — thanks to his study of its regional weather patterns in the 1800s — his contributions to the state, country and world across an array of areas of study are much more broad. Although not all his Iowa history is glowing.

Born in 1836 in a part of Denmark that today is Germany, Hinrichs attended several universities and colleges and earned many degrees — conducting research and writing books and articles on topics in physics, astronomy, meteorology and geology, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and UI Libraries.

His publications spanned several languages, as Hinrichs was fluent in Danish, French, German, Italian and English — boasting some Greek and Latin. He emigrated from Denmark to the United States in 1861, at the start of the Civil War.

He first settled in Davenport and taught at a high school before moving to Iowa City in August 1863 to join a small UI faculty, just eight years after its first professors began offering instruction on campus.


Although he started as an instructor of modern languages, he was named professor of physical science in the Department of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy the year after he arrived.

Like the storm he’s now known for naming, Hinrichs earned a reputation for being headstrong and aggressive — which aided him in his campaign to build a “world-class science program,” according to NOAA’s Hinrichs history.

The professor also pushed for Iowa City to serve as home to the state’s medical college, plus funding for it. His laboratory emerged among the top four in the country, with Hinrichs becoming the first to develop and use lab manuals in teaching.

Among his many scientific contributions, Hinrichs helped pave the way for the discovery of the structure of the atom; he was among several scientists to discover the Periodic System of Elements; and in 1875 he and others organized the Iowa Academy of Science.

Hinrichs that year also instituted the first state weather service in Iowa, which he directed from 1875 to 1889, according to NOAA.

His first observatory was at Church and Clinton streets — and later the UI president’s residence. Hinrichs also kept a weather station atop his house at Capitol and Market streets and displayed flag signals indicating barometer readings. Iowa City residents considered his flags weather predictions, according to the UI Libraries’ Biographical Dictionary of Iowa.

‘Volatile, abrasive’ nature made Hinrichs no friends on faculty

Hinrichs, perhaps, found more time for his weather pursuits — precipitating his derecho fame — thanks to the contentious dismantling of his esteemed research program.

“While Hinrichs was a gifted teacher and internationally recognized chemist, he was also a volatile, abrasive, and sometimes a vindictive man,” according to the NOAA history.

Despite his success, “or maybe because of it,” according to NOAA, “Hinrichs’s arrogance made him no friends on the Iowa faculty. Some faculty even thought him egotistical, tactless, and mistrustful.”


Former UI President George Thacher implemented severe budget cuts for physics and chemistry, propelling a highly publicized feud with Hinrichs that culminated with a legislative investigation and admonishment.

Hinrichs redirected his energies toward his weather interests, “with a decreased workload and fewer students,” according to NOAA. But the contention grew, and new UI President Josiah Pickard and other faculty eventually filed charges against Hinrichs for “unprofessional actions and attitudes.”

Iowa’s Board of Regents found the charges true and dismissed Hinrichs in 1886 for “general obstreperousness.”

“After Hinrichs 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,” according to NOAA. “The investigating committee found that ‘the charges originated in jealousy and spite and are without a particle of foundation in fact.’”

Hinrichs then moved to St. Louis in 1889 and served as a chemistry professor at St. Louis University. He died at 86 on Feb. 14, 1923.

But even with his rocky departure, UI archivist David McCartney said Hinrichs’ pursuit of “just the facts” and his work to entrench the university in quantitative research early on is his legacy.

“Academically, he had moved the university forward very quickly and very strongly in the direction of research in the physical and natural sciences,” McCartney said. “He enhanced what really had been a very primitive, very limited program in a relatively short period of time.

“It may have been either because of his personality, or in spite of it, that he was able to secure that,” he said. “I have this image of him, perhaps advocating so strongly for such a program that he could not be ignored by the administration.”

At some point, McCartney said, his personality apparently became a liability.


“But he certainly demonstrated the ability of mobilizing in a rather short period of time a program that became regarded nationally quite quickly,” he said. “And I think setting that precedent here at the University of Iowa was certainly of great benefit to the longer-term development of academic programs.”

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