Henry M. Stommel, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and former professor of oceanography at MIT who gained worldwide recognition for his work on the large-scale circulation of oceans, died January 17 at the New England Deaconess Hospital of a heart attack after surgery for a liver tumor. He was 71 and lived in the Woods Hole section of Falmouth. A memorial service was held January 22 in St. Barnabas Church, Falmouth.
Professor Stommel was at Woods Hole for many years before going first to Harvard University as a professor of oceanography in 1960 and then to MIT in 1963 in what was at that time the Department of Meteorology.
He stayed at MIT for 15 years, contributing importantly to the Institute's rapidly developing program of education and research in the earth sciences, before returning to Woods Hole in 1978.
Although he never earned an advanced degree, Professor Stommel was recognized as one of the most imaginative, productive and influential oceanographers in the world.
"His originality and the range and penetration of his own research have in major part generated the modern concepts of ocean circulation," said James R. Luyten, chairman of the department of physical oceanography at Woods Hole.
He made outstanding contributions to the scientific knowledge of interaction between oceans and the atmosphere, to the theory of cumulus clouds and to the distribution of such variables as temperature and humidity over the sea.
It was in the 1950s, The New York Times said, that he became known internationally for his speculation on circulation in the Atlantic. "He recognized the role of the earth's rotation in pushing the Gulf Stream westward along the coast of North America and also proposed that its northward flow must be balanced by a deep southward flow beneath it," the Times said. "He proposed a global circulation in which surface water sinks in the far north, feeding the deep south-flowing current, whereas water rises in the Antarctic, supplying a northward flow along the east coast of the Americas."
Much of this theory was later confirmed, the Times said.
Born in Wilmington, Del., Professor Stommel was educated in physics at Yale University, receiving the BS degree in 1942. After teaching mathematics and astronomy at Yale for two years, he became a research associate at Woods Hole, where he stayed until going to Harvard and later MIT.
His many awards included the Agassiz Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, the US National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Rosenstiel Award in Oceanographic Science from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Sverdrup Gold Medal from the American Meteorological Society and the Henry Bryant Bigelow Medal from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society.
He received honorary doctorates from Yale, the University of Chicago and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
He was the author and co-author of many books and articles in national and international publications.
He leaves his wife, Elizabeth; a daughter, Abigail Adams of North Falmouth; and two sons, Elijah of New Hampshire and Matthew of Woods Hole.
A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 36, Number 18).