Landsberg, Helmut Erich

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(b. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 9 February 1906; d. Geneva, Switzerland, 6 December 1985),

geophysics, climatology.

Landsberg had a significant impact on the development of the geophysical sciences in the mid- to late twentieth century. He raised the status of climatology in the United States from an exercise in geographic description to a well-developed applied physical science. His broad-ranging interests produced pioneering studies linking atmospheric and social phenomena. In his work both in academia and government, he used his organizational talents to advance the disciplines of meteorology and climatology.

Origins, Education, and Emigration to the United States . Helmut Erich Landsberg was born in Frankfurt am Main. His father, Georg Landsberg, was a physician who died of tuberculosis when Landsberg was about three years old. An only child, Landsberg was raised by his mother, Clare Zedner Landsberg, whom he described as a housewife, but with a good education. He attended the city’s Woehler Realgymnasium High School, and then he went on to study at the University of Frankfurt, where he received a solid grounding in physics, mathematics, and geosciences. After further studies at Frankfurt’s Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics, he received his PhD in 1930. Landsberg wrote his doctoral dissertation under Professor Beno Gutenberg on the subject of seismographic instrumentation for measuring earthquakes. He held two positions at the University of Frankfurt, in both cases working under Professor Franz Linke, professor of meteorology. The first position was as a postdoctoral assistant to Linke in seismology and climatology; his main task was to set up a weather station in the Rhineland to study frosts in vineyards and ways to mitigate their effects with heaters. He then served, from 1931 to 1934, as chief of forecasting at the Taunus Observatory near Frankfurt, run by the university’s Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics; among other duties, he produced weather forecasts for a local airline between Cologne and Frankfurt.

Landsberg emigrated to the United States in 1934, at age twenty-eight, when he accepted a position at Pennsylvania State College (Penn State; since 1953, Pennsylvania State University) as assistant professor of geophysics. He had inquired with his dissertation advisor about the possibility of a position in the United States, and Gutenberg, who had moved to the United States in 1930, recommended him for the position at Penn State. Landsberg continued to teach there until the end of the 1930s. His establishment of meteorological and geophysical laboratories, as well as some interdisciplinary studies, at Penn State expanded the curriculum. In 1941 Landsberg moved to the University of Chicago to become an associate professor in the Department of Meteorology.

Pre–World War II Researches . The scope of Landsberg’s research interests were evident in his first writings published in Germany, and they continued to develop steadily in the United States in the late 1930s. At the Taunus Observatory, he had the opportunity to make upper air observations and (in cold and foggy weather) to read the scientific literature in its excellent library. There Landsberg began the prolific and varied output that continued throughout his long career, publishing an article approximately every two months over the course of five decades. His early papers already exhibited his characteristic interest in exploring the interactions between meteorological and atmospheric phenomena and a range of human activities.

One strand of Landsberg’s work was a series of papers on earthquakes and related issues of mining safety, including the hazard of dust. This led him into the broader topic of atmospheric condensation nuclei, on which he published a monograph in 1938. Going beyond their meteorological role in cloud formation to their biological effects, the study established the importance of microscopic particles in air pollution and noted the retention of submicron particles in human lungs. Another strand of Landsberg’s work was his interest in observing phenomena such as air masses as part of the local climatology. The papers reflect his focus on observational science, its instrumentation and methodology, and statistical analysis of data. In 1941 Landsberg published a landmark textbook titled Physical Climatology, which introduced an American student audience to the concept of climatology as an applied physical science utilizing statistical data. It was reprinted several times and was issued in a revised edition in 1958.

Wartime Career and Government Service . Beginning in 1941 Landsberg worked in some very different environments, first in the strenuous climate of World War II and then in postwar government agencies, both military and civilian. The American academic meteorological community was called on to support the United States during the war through expanding forecasting capabilities for military operations. Starting in 1941, five major American departments of meteorology (at the University of Chicago, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California at Los Angeles, and New York University) began offering postgraduate courses in weather forecasting to Army Air Corps cadets.

Besides participating in the teaching program, Landsberg supervised Chicago’s large Military Climatology Project,

run by the Institute of Meteorology. Under contract to the Weather Directorate at Headquarters, Army Air Forces, the project prepared climatological atlases for bombing missions. Landsberg was editor of a number of these reports for areas in Europe. In 1944 he also authored a climatic study of cloudiness over Japan. In conjunction with preparing these climatological reports, Landsberg traveled widely in order to evaluate weather statistics for air routes and various types of operations. Later on he worked full time as an operations analyst for the Eighth and the Twentieth Air Forces, making extended visits to both the European and Pacific theaters. Landsberg met his future wife, A. Frances Simpson, a registered nurse, during World War II. They married in 1946 and had a son, Bruce S. Landsberg.

After the war, Landsberg joined the U.S. Weather Bureau, where he became chief of the Section of Industrial Climatology. After only a few months there, in late 1946 he moved over to the government’s military side, to join what historians of science such as Stuart Leslie have termed the “permanent mobilization of science” in support of future defense that followed the end of World War II. Over the next eight years, he held two administrative positions relating to this effort. The first was with the new Joint Research and Development Board (JRDB) that the secretaries of war and the navy had created in 1946 to fill the void left by the rapid phaseout of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development. The JRDB proceeded to create a set of panels and committees to cover various technical areas, one of them being a Committee on Geophysical Sciences. Landsberg became the deputy executive director for this committee, which had its first meeting on 18 December 1946. One of his tasks was to prepare the 1948 Survey of Scientists Engaged in Geophysical Researches to assess the need to train more scientists in the field. He also prepared the classified report Geophysics and Warfare (1948), which was published in 1954 in an updated, unclassified version. By mid-1951, when Landsberg once again moved on, the Department of Defense had been created, the JRDB had been replaced by the more powerful Research and Development Board (RDB), his committee had been expanded to include geography, and he had become its executive director. He also became associate editor of the Journal of Meteorology in 1951 and continued in this capacity until 1960.

The second position that Landsberg held in the Department of Defense was as director of the Geophysical Research Directorate (GRD). This directorate, together with an Electronic Research Directorate, made up the new Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL). In his time there, between mid-1951 and mid-1954, Landsberg had the responsibility of implementing the geophysical research and development program for the air force that he had worked to plan and fund while at the RDB. From all accounts, GRD flourished under Lands-berg’s management. By 1954 he had expanded GRD’s contract program with universities, hired high-quality staff to build up its in-house capabilities (including its library), and developed new program areas. Landsberg was an able publicist for his organization, shown most notably in his Geophysics and Warfare. He also became editor for the new series, Advances in Geophysics, published by Academic Press. Its first annual volume came out in 1952. Landsberg continued as the primary editor through the first nineteen volumes of the series.

In 1954 Landsberg decided to return to the U.S. Weather Bureau, where he had been offered the position of director of the Climatological Services Division (after 1956 the Office of Climatology), and he remained there until 1965. Landsberg made it his business to upgrade the collection of climatological data and to better organize the available records. For example, after sponsoring a study to determine the required density of a network to more accurately measure rainfall, he expanded the number of stations set up for volunteer observers to collect climate data. He also brought in computers to assist in organizing, centralizing, and maintaining climatological records. One of his major projects at the Weather Bureau was to work toward establishing state and regional climatologists across the country. Landsberg also prepared new World Maps of Climatology that were published in two editions in 1963 and 1965.

During these middle decades of Landsberg’s career, his research continued to explore a range of atmospheric phenomena and their interactions with human society. Even with his full-time administrative work, he continued to publish, if at a somewhat slower rate. The appearance of his textbook Physical Climatology, followed by definitive articles on climatology in the 1945 Handbook of Meterology and the 1951 Compendium of Meteorology, made him a recognized authority in the field. Landsberg’s 1946 paper, “Climate as a Natural Resource,” evinced his growing interest in the relevance of climatology for many human activities and the need to consider it in plans for industry, construction, and agriculture. At the same time, Landsberg delved into related weather phenomena and air pollution. He began to study these interactions on various scales ranging from microclimates to local and regional climates and global phenomena. His researches made a significant contribution to the emerging new sciences of bioclimatology and biometeorology. One end product of these studies was his widely read introductory book Weather and Health, published in 1969.

The University of Maryland and “Retirement” Years . In the mid-1960s Landsberg made a transition from government work back into academia. When his Office of Climatology at the U.S. Weather Bureau was transformed into the Environmental Data Services component of the newly founded Environmental Science Services Administration, he became director of Environmental Data Services for about a year. Then, in 1967, he accepted an appointment as research professor at the University of Maryland at College Park in the Institute for Fluid Dynamics and Applied Mathematics. During 1974– 1976, the last two years before he retired from the university, he served as the director of the institute. At Maryland, Landsberg was instrumental in founding a separate Department of Meteorology and nurturing a graduate program in the discipline. He also took on another major editorial task in the mid-1960s as editor-in-chief of the World Survey of Climatology. After his official retirement, he became a professor emeritus at the university, a position he held until his death in 1985. His “retirement” years were ones of intense professional activity. Landsberg continued his affiliation with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which had begun in 1969 when he had become president of the WMO’s Commission for Special Applications of Meteorology and Climatology. In December 1985 Landsberg was attending a congress of the WMO in Geneva, Switzerland, when he suddenly collapsed; he died on 6 December, just two months short of his eightieth birthday.

Landsberg’s research in the last two decades of his life yielded many fruitful results. One was his series of studies starting in the 1950s on the climatology of cities. He published a seminal paper in 1979 titled “Atmospheric Changes in a Growing Community (The Columbia, Maryland, Experience),” showing how the creation of a new city had affected the local climate of the region. In his book The Urban Climate (1981), published when he was seventy-five, Landsberg presented a major research monograph discussing the last forty years of studies on the dynamics of urban heat islands. Another area in which Landsberg made an important contribution was his investigations of larger regional and global trends in climate. To try to ascertain whether there had been long-term climatic fluctuations or alterations in the past, scientists had recourse to historical records. Landsberg compiled a number of extended series of regional climate data, including a series on the precipitation record in the Boston area that went back to 1751, which he published in 1967.

The subject of climate change was coming to public attention by the 1970s, and one question raised was whether human activities were altering the climate. In an important article published in Science in 1970, Landsberg reviewed the scientific literature regarding human influences on climate. His overall conclusion was that he regarded the available historical records and studies to date as insufficient evidence to demonstrate any significant human effect on global climate. He was, by contrast, quite definite that the evidence showed that human activities were making major alterations to the climate on regional and local scales and, as one example, he cited the climatological studies on cities. Some dramatic global meteorological events over the course of the 1970s (droughts, abnormal cold and heat waves, famine in Africa), together with the oil crisis, increased public concerns in this area. As J. Murray Mitchell, one of Lands-berg’s memorialists, pointed out, climatologists were now in the position of being pressed for answers on global climate change (Baer, Canfield, and Mitchell, 1991). He noted that, despite this pressure, Landsberg continued to deliver balanced and judicious comments on the issue and the state of current research. His invited scientific lecture at the 1983 World Meteorological Congress, “The Value and Challenge of Climatic Predictions,” represented his final magisterial review of the subject.

Honors and Awards . During his lifetime, Helmut Landsberg held leadership positions in a number of scientific and professional organizations including the American Geophysical Union (AGU), serving as the AGU’s vice president from 1966 to 1968 and its president from 1968 to 1970. His accomplishments in many scientific fields are reflected in his election to the National Academy of Engineering and his selection as a Fellow by the Royal Meteorological Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the AGU, the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and the Washington Academy of Sciences. Among the most important awards Landsberg received were the William Bowie Medal from the AGU in 1978, and the International Meteorological Organization prize from the WMO in 1979. The following year, the German Meteorological Society presented Landsberg with the Alfred Wegener Medal. In 1983 he received the Cleveland Abbe Award from the AMS. Landsberg was honored with the William F. Peterson Foundation Award for outstanding accomplishments in the field of biometeorology in 1983. The Presidential Medal of Science was presented to him by President Ronald Reagan at a White House ceremony on 27 February 1985.

Landsberg’s colleagues had been planning a symposium in his honor for his eightieth birthday. When his death intervened just before the event, it was changed to a memorial tribute; the proceedings of the February 1986 symposium were published five years later. After Landsberg’s death, several new awards were named in his honor. As part of the National Weather Service’s Cooperative Weather Observer Awards Program, the Helmut E. Landsberg Award was established to recognize individuals who had completed sixty years of service as cooperative observers.


The papers of Helmut E. Landsberg, an extensive collection comprising 20.25 linear feet and covering his entire life from 1906–1985, are deposited in the Archives and Manuscripts Department, University of Maryland Libraries, Hornbake Library, College Park, MD. A chronological listing of Landsberg’s scientific writings is included in Baer, Ferdinand; Norman L. Canfield; and J. Murray Mitchell, eds., 1991, cited below.


“Origin and Occurrence of Earthquakes.” Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences 11(1937): 88–92.

“Atmospheric Condensation Nuclei.” Ergebnisse der Kosmischen Physik III (Gerlands Beiträge zur Geophysik, Dritter Supplementband), (1938): 155–252.

Physical Climatology. DuBois, PA: Gray Printing, 1941 (1st ed.); reprintings 1942 (slightly revised), 1943, 1947 (revised), and 1950; 2nd ed., 1958.

With E. R. Biel, eds. Preliminary Climatic Atlas of the World. Prepared by the Military Climatology Project, Institute of Meteorology, University of Chicago, under the direction of the Climatological Section, Directorate of Weather, Headquarters Army Air Forces, November 1942. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942.

“Climate as a Natural Resource.” Scientific Monthly (October 1946): 293–298. Reprinted in Managing Climatic Resources and Risks, pp. 17–22. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1981.

Editor. Survey of Scientists Engaged in Geophysical Researches. National Military Establishment, Research and Development Board: Digest Series no. 11, GS 62/1, 25 June 1948. There is a copy of the survey in the National Archives.

Editor. Advances in Geophysics. New York: Academic Press, 1952–1971. Landsberg edited the first nineteen volumes of this annual series, which presented the latest results and reviews of geophysical research

Geophysics and Warfare. Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense: Research and Development Coordinating Committee on General Sciences, CGS 202/1, March 1954. The original classified report from 1948 does not seem to have survived.

“The Climate of Towns.” In Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, edited by William L. Thomas, 548–606. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

With H. Lippman, K. Paffen, and Carl Troll. World Maps of Climatology. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1963; 2nd ed., 1965.

“Two Centuries of New England Climate.” Weatherwise 20, no. 2 (April 1967): 52–57. Presents the precipitation record from 1751 for the vicinity of Boston.

Weather and Health. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.

Editor. World Survey of Climatology. Amsterdam, NY: Elsevier Scientific, 1969. Landsberg was editor-in-chief for the first fifteen volumes of the survey.

“Man-Made Climatic Changes.” Science 170, no. 3964 (18 December 1970): 1265–1274.

“Weather, Climate, and Human Settlements.” Special Environmental Report no. 7 (WMO, no. 448). Geneva: World Meteorological Organization, 1976.

“Atmospheric Changes in a Growing Community (The Columbia, Maryland, Experience).” Urban Ecology 4 (1979): 53–81.

The Urban Climate. Vol. 28, International Geophysics Series. New York: Academic Press, 1981.

“The Value and Challenge of Climatic Predictions.” Invited Scientific Lectures Presented at the Ninth World Meteorological Congress. WMO, no. 614 (1985): 20–32.

With Stephen G. Brush and Martin Collins, eds. The History of Geophysics and Meterology: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985.


Baer, Ferdinand. “Helmut E. Landsberg, 1906–1985.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 67, no. 12, Necrology (December 1986): 1522–1523.

———. “Symposium on Climate in Memory of Helmut E. Landsberg, 10 February 1986, College Park, Maryland.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 67, no. 12 (December 1986): 1493–1500.

———. “Helmut E. Landsberg: Leadership through Vision,

Breadth and Depth.” In Advances in Geosciences: Selected Papers from the Symposia of the Interdivisional Commission on the History of the International Association of Geomagnetism and Aeronomy (IAGA) during the IAGA General Assembly, held in Exeter, UK, 1989, edited by Wilfried Schröder, 241–260. Bremen-Roennebeck, Germany: 1990.

———. “Helmut E. Landsberg, 1906–1985.” Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering 5 (1992): 152–157.

Baer, Ferdinand, Norman L. Canfield, and J. Murray Mitchell, eds. Climate in Human Perspective: A Tribute to Helmut E. Landsberg. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991. The volume is the published proceedings of the February 1986 symposium cited above. In addition to the chronological listing of Landsberg’s scientific writings, the volume includes a 1981 oral history interview with Landsberg, plus extensive notes on his activities, honors, and awards.

Liebowitz, Ruth P. “Post-War Military Sponsorship of Geophysical Research: The Role of Helmut E. Landsberg, 1946–1954.” In Advances in Geosciences: Selected Papers from the Symposia of the Interdivisional Commission on the History of the International Association of Geomagnetism and Aeronomy (IAGA) during the IAGA General Assembly, held in Exeter, UK, 1989, edited by Wilfried Schröder, 261–277. Bremen-Roennebeck, Germany: 1990.

Robock, Alan. Videotaped interview with Helmut E. Landsberg, University of Maryland, 1983.

Taba, H. Interview with Professor H. E. Landsberg, 29 July

1981, for the Bulletin of the World Meteorological Organization, reprinted in Climate in Human Perspective: A Tribute to Helmut E. Landsberg, edited by Ferdinand Baer, Norman L. Canfield, and J. Murray Mitchell, 97–109. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.

Ruth Prelowski Liebowitz

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