Gustavus D. Hinrichs – SUI’s Own Dr. Derecho.

On August 10, 2020, a wind storm, unlike any other in Iowa history, hit eastern Iowa. Cedar Rapids was pounded the hardest, with Iowa City getting its share of severe damage as well. And while most Iowans are very familiar with tornadoes – click here to read about the devastation caused by the 2006 Iowa City tornado – very few were aware of the meteorological term – derecho – prior to August 10 – which simply put, is an in-land hurricane capable of producing long-term, straight-line winds of 100+ mph. As one writer put it…

There was more than a little dark irony on Aug. 10, (2020) when Iowa City was pounded by a derecho the likes of which nobody has seen before, as Iowa City is the place where the mysterious weather phenomenon was first identified and given its name.

How so, you might ask?

Without a doubt, Dr. Gustavus D. Hinrichs was the best-known science professor at SUI during the 19th century – working here from 1863 to 1886. In truth, under Hinrichs’ leadership, the University became one of the top schools across the nation focusing on science and chemistry. His list of accomplishments would fill many pages, so we won’t try to offer a comprehensive report, but simply give you a few highlights – one of which is the fact that Hinrichs was the first scientist to identify the straight-line thunderstorms that can produce winds in excess of 100 mph, giving it the name derecho (deh-RAY-cho) in 1888. Secondly, while Gustavus had a long, illustrious career in science, he also had a bumpy and very cantankerous time at SUI, leaving a long legacy of discovery, ingenuity … and bad blood. But more on that later. For now, let’s go back to the very beginning…

Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs was born on December 2, 1836 in Lunden of the Duchy of Holstein – now a German state, but, at the time, under Danish rule. As a young boy, Gustavus watched as war broke out between Denmark and Prussia over the political future of Holstein and the neighboring territory of Schleswig (far north on map above).

Hinrichs was trained as a chemist at the University of Copenhagen and Denmark’s Polytechnic School, and during his schooling, he published several articles and books, including descriptions of the magnetic field of earth and its interaction with the aether. By the time he graduated in 1860, diplomatic tensions between Denmark and Prussia were once again on the rise, which, most likely, inspired his decision to immigrate to the United States (1861). Before leaving Europe, Gustavus married Auguste C.F. Springer (1860), but sadly she died in 1865, upon which Hinrichs married her sister, Anna, (1867) and together, they had three children.

After crossing the Atlantic, Hinrichs worked for two years as a high school teacher In Davenport, Iowa (1861-1863), and its here he made important connections that would influence his career at SUI – including Judge John F. Dillon – who moved to Davenport as a child (1838), and Dr. Washington F. Peck – the Davenport surgeon who would later become the catalyst for the SUI School of Medicine (1870). More on that later.

A man of many curiosities and accomplishments, Hinrichs first taught at SUI as a faculty member in the Modern Languages department (1863), as he was fluent in English, German, Italian, French, Latin, Greek, and his native Danish. He joined the Department of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy faculty the following year (1864), though he researched and published in a wide variety of sciences, including physics, astronomy, geology, and meteorology. He also was a mineralogist and a crystallographer, and in 1865, when the University was reorganized during the presidency of Oliver M. Spencer, Hinrichs was appointed to teach both physics and chemistry – soon making his program known throughout the country and the world. His SUI laboratory was one of the top four in the United States, and Hinrichs was the first to develop and use lab manuals in his teaching, a practice which continues to today.

Chart of elements from Hinrichs’ Programme der Atomechanik, 1867

In addition to being a popular lecturer, Hinrichs was a prolific author. Between 1856 and 1913, he published twenty-five books and hundreds of articles. Among historians of science, Hinrichs is best known as one of six researchers credited with the development of the periodic table (1860’s). 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.

In 1870, Hinrichs joined the small faculty of the newly-founded SUI College of Medicine, and it’s apparent from early records (see picture below) that his short season in Davenport (1861-1863) played strongly in his active support for both the creation of the program, and bringing it, along with Dr. Washington F. Peck and Judge John F. Dillon to Iowa City.

Eight physicians served the Medical Department during its first year of classes on the SUI campus. Seated (L to R) are Philo J. Farnsworth, chair of materia medica; Washington F. Peck, dean and chair of surgery; and John F. Dillon, chair of medical jurisprudence. Standing (L to R) are Gustavus D. Hinrichs, chair of chemistry; John C. Shrader, chair of obstetrics; William B. Robertson, chair of theory and practice in medicine; William D. Middleton, chair of physiology; and Elmer F. Clapp, chair of anatomy. Clapp succeeded James H. Boucher, who resigned earlier in the school year. Read more about Dr. Washington F. Peck – the founding of the SUI College of Medicine.

While Hinrichs was a gifted teacher and internationally recognized chemist, he was also a volatile, abrasive, and sometimes a vindictive man. According to one biographer, Hinrichs was sensitive, high strung, egotistical, tactless, and mistrustful. The Palimpsest wrote that he rarely published studies in American journals because he “was offended when the editors of one of the leading American journals used a blue pencil on some of his early articles and did not publish them as promptly as he desired.”

Under SUI Presidents Oliver M. Spencer (1862-1867) and James Black (1868-1870), Hinrichs’ program in laboratory chemistry and physics prospered mightily. All SUI students were required to take two years of physical science, so Gustavus was awarded two assistants, and the Iowa Board of Regents provided funds for North Hall (1867) – with the entire first floor given over to Gustavus’ undergraduate laboratories (see pic below). Read more here.

Yet, despite this success, or maybe because of it, Hinrichs’ arrogance made him no friends on the SUI faculty. He feuded often with others, and when the new University President George Thacher (below left) arrived on the scene (1871) – a man who preferred the humanities over science – the proverbial cow dung hit the fan. In fact, the dispute between Thacher and Hinrichs became so negative – and so public – that the state legislature felt it necessary to send an investigating committee to Iowa City. Both men were admonished for their behavior, and Hinrichs was directed to give the President the respect the position deserves – but quite honestly, the situation continued to worsen.

By the time a new president – Josiah L. Pickard (above right) – came on board (1878), things had become downright impossible, and by the mid-1880’s, Pickard and most of the SUI faculty decided to file charges against Hinrichs regarding his unprofessional and war-like attitude toward faculty members and the University. The Board of Regents, once again, stepped in to investigate the charges, and this time, Hinrichs was dismissed from the Collegiate Faculty (1885) and the Medical Faculty (1886) for “general obstreperousness.”

Hinrichs left SUI on March 2, 1886, following nearly 23 years of service, but continued as head of the Iowa Weather Service (see story below) for three more years (1889), before moving to St. Louis to serve as professor in the Washington University Chemistry Department within the College of Pharmacy. Which now brings us back to Gustavus’ love of keeping an eye toward the skies…

In the 1870’s, as President Thacher was making some major curriculum changes at SUI, he re-assigned a portion of Hinrichs’ job responsibilities to other teachers – leaving Gustavus with some extra time on his hands. As a result of this change, and since the University had refused to take Hinrichs’ suggestion of including an astronomical observatory on the newly-built North Hall, the good professor, in 1875, took it upon himself to build an observatory atop his own home – located at 9 East Market Street (see map & pic above)! Read more here.

Meteorite fragments collected by Gustavus Hinrichs from The Amana Meteorite of February 12, 1875. He subsequently issued the definitive account of the Amana meteorite and distributed samples to museum collections around the world.

One of his first observatory projects came hurtling his way on February 12th, as Gustavus witnessed what he later described as “one of the most brilliant meteors of modern times” – a fireball that was visible from Omaha to Chicago. The meteorite exploded over the Amana Colonies, a religious commune approximately 25 miles west of Iowa City, and since mineralogy fell under his work as a physical science professor, Hinrichs took it upon himself to document the entire event and collect any surviving meteorite fragments.

After all the excitement of the Amana meteorite, Hinrichs made his first weather observations from atop his home and adjoining barn on October 1, 1875. Soon, Hinrichs decided to display flag signals from the top of his home, indicating to the general public the latest readings from his barometer. Over the next few years, as Iowa Citians came to trust in Hinrichs’ weather forecasts – the belief was so strong, that on one occasion, the local newspaper gave him credit for controlling spring weather so that a railroad construction project could proceed more rapidly! By year’s end, Gustavus was contacting others around the state, building a network of weather spotters who would send him local statistics, written on post cards – which Hinrichs used in his weather-related studies.

Soon that network became known as the Iowa Weather Service, with Hinrichs serving as the director from 1875 to 1889. Originally staffed with volunteers, Gustavus 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 equipment.

Gustavus Hinrichs, “Tornadoes and Derechos,” American Meteorological Journal, Vol. 5, 1888

In a report published in the American Meteorological Journal (1878), Hinrichs wrote…

The thunderstorm of July 31, 1877 was quite severe over an area of 20,000 square miles, about 2/5 of all Iowa.

In that 12-page report, Gustavus discusses the uniqueness of this July 31st Iowa storm, noting that the damaging winds that moved across the state were not tornadic in nature – our word tornado comes from the Spanish word tornar (“to turn”) – but were powerful straight-line winds that swept continuously across large areas of land. Thus Hinrichs – the man who could speak seven different languages – took the Spanish word for straight, and coined a new weather word – derecho.

As we reported earlier, after SUI released Hinrichs from his work at the University (1886), the embittered weatherman remained in Iowa City for three more years, attempting to oversee the Iowa Weather Service. Slowly, however, this personal network that he had created in 1875 was now crumbling as the State of Iowa stepped in with increased funding – determined to better govern this growing service of providing accurate weather-forecasting to the citizens of Iowa. In our postal cover collection, we have two letters (below) from Hinrichs to his shrinking number of weather observers – waging a war of words against all those who dared take away this network he had once controlled. (JP-007) The first is dated April 8, 1889 – sent from ‘Central Station IWS’ while he still lived in Iowa City, and (JP-008) the second – dated May 24, 1890 – and while still postmarked in Iowa City, the Hinrichs had already relocated to St. Louis.

By the early-1890’s, all was lost for Gustavus in Iowa City, with both the State of Iowa and SUI moving onward and upward without him. As we mentioned earlier, Hinrichs finished his illustrious career serving as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Retiring in 1907, Hinrichs continued researching his many areas of interest – even becoming an entrepreneur – selling an embalming fluid of his own invention to morticians – right up to his death on February 14, 1923, at age 86.

Both his wife, Anna (1842-1910), and Gustavus were laid to rest at Hillcrest Abbey Crematory and Mausoleum in St. Louis. From a 1910 article (above), found in the Iowa City Republican, Anna continued to have good friends in Iowa City, but sadly, the same thing might not be said of Professor Hinrichs.

After Gustavus Hinrichs passed away, the Iowa Academy of Science – an organization he helped start in 1875 – printed a brief remembrance, which praised him as “the brainiest personage that perhaps ever trod our prairie soil.” While one may take issue with that assessment, it is difficult to deny the breadth of Hinrichs’ achievements, which spanned the domains of chemistry, mineralogy, and meteorology. Perhaps more importantly, he accelerated the trend to incorporate laboratory training into undergraduate physics and chemistry classes, while simultaneously confirming that Midwestern researchers could make substantive contributions to the global scientific enterprise. Godspeed, Gustavus – Godspeed!


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Scientist of the Day – Gustavus Hinichs, Benjamin Gross, Linda Hall Library, December 2, 2020

Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs, Wikipedia

A Brief History of Gustavus Hinrichs, Discoverer of the DERECHO, Ray Wolf, spc.noaa.gov

Hinrichs, Gustavus Detlef, Loren N. Horton, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, University of Iowa Digital Library

Gustavus Hinrichs: A derecho of a man, Tom Snee, IowaNow, August 8, 2020

Prof. Gustavus HinrichsSaturday Postcard 188: Early University Genius, Bob Hibbs, IAGenWeb

University of Iowa Medical Department faculty, 1870-71, Time Capsule, MedicineIowa

A Timeline of UI Presidents, University of Iowa Libraries

Iowa Weather Bulletin Volume 1 Number 1, Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs, Iowa City 1878

Gustavus Hinrichs, B.A. Morelli, Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 11, 2010

Storm Blows Through, Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 11, 2020, p 1

Anna Springer Hinrichs obituary, The Iowa City Republican, October 21, 1910, p 8

Anna Springer Hinrichs, Find-A-Grave

Dr. Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs, Find-A-Grave


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