History of DFD

Russell J. Donnelly
Department of Physics, University of Oregon

The early history of the Division of Fluid Dynamics (DFD) of the American Physical Society (APS) is now lost in time: 2023 marked the 76th Annual Meeting of the DFD! As you will see below the DFD was founded by members of the American Physical Society who were full-time physicists, and felt a need for having some more specialized conferences in this fascinating but difficult subject. The membership of the Division is now dominated by members of the various engineering professions interested in the foundations of the subject plus applied mathematicians and computational experts. Physicists who belong to it today are mostly from research areas where fluid dynamical concepts and techniques are important, such as quantum fluids and nonlinear phenomena. There is no doubt that, on an international scale, our annual meeting is the largest and most influential meeting in our field.

Prior to World War II, interest in continuum dynamics and heat transfer, aside from radiation, hardly existed within the American Physical Society. As a result of wartime experiences with explosives, blast damage to structures and construction of fission weapons, as well as with turbulence and supersonic aerodynamics, a group of physicists became convinced that several interesting problems existed in fluid dynamics which remained unsolved. A group within the society presented these problems starting with the first gatherings of the society after the war as contributed papers. Noteworthy was the Cambridge meeting held on 25-27 April 1946 where contributed papers were given by R. J. Seeger, J. von Neumann, Taub, W. Bleakney, L. G. Smith, F. J. Weyl, and others on shock waves.

On 28 June 1946 E. U. Condon, then president of the American Physical Society, appointed a Committee on Fluid Dynamics to organize a program on fluid dynamics at the January 1947 meeting of the Society and to consider the type of organization that would insure the permanent consideration of fluid dynamics by physicists. The leading spirit in the discussions with reference to the appointment of the committee was R. J. Seeger. The committee named was H. L. Dryden, H. W. Emmons, J. G. Kirkwood, C. B. Millikan, R. J. Seeger, Th. von Karman, and J. von Neumann.

At the New York meeting on 31 January and 1 February 1947, a symposium on recent developments in compressible flow and important experimental and theoretical work on shock waves and water entry phenomena was held. Numerous papers were contributed to other sessions without individual solicitation. There was a brief discussion following one of the sessions of the desirability of forming a Division of Fluid Dynamics. The proposal was met with favor. The committee was requested to proceed with the formation of the Division and the necessary petition to the Council was signed. About 250 members expressed interest.

The Council of the APS, at its meeting in Montreal on 20 June 1947, approved the formation of two new divisions (the 3rd and 4th) within the society—Solid State Physics and Fluid Dynamics. President Oppenheimer appointed a special nominating committee to conduct the elections of an Executive Committee of the Division of Fluid Dynamics: W. Bleakney, F. H. Clauser, and G. E. Uhlenbeck. The Committee on Fluid Dynamics functioned to prepare symposia for the 29-30 January 1948 annual meeting in New York. The first official meetings of the Division were a program, held jointly with the then-called Institute of Aeronautical Sciences, in the Hotel Astor on problems related to the upper atmosphere, and in Pupin 301 at Columbia University a session dealing with rarefied gases as expounded by Estermann, Spitzer, Herzfeld, and Uhlenbeck. Growing numbers of contributed papers accompanied these invited paper sessions.

A letter from Howard Emmons to the first Executive Committee of the Division dated 17 August 1948 marked its formal constitution; this letter addressed to R. J. Seeger (Chairman), H. L. Dryden (Vice-chairman), H. W. Emmons (Secretary-Treasurer), Jesse W. Beams, Paul S. Epstein, John G. Kirkwood, and Theodore von Karman informed the members of their election and called for their efforts to organize a series of meetings. Again on 27-29 January 1949 at Columbia University at the annual meeting of the society, Williams, von Karman, Lin, Kac, Kovasznay, Corrsin, and Schwarzchild gave invited talks in sessions on turbulence presided over by Clauser and Dryden. Noteworthy among many interesting contributed papers at the 1949 meeting was one by Hornig on shock thickness measurement.

Attendance at these annual meeting sessions was substantial and members were paying initiation fees at such a rate that, by 1949, 259 official members of the Division were recorded.

The Division of Fluid Dynamics early embarked on a series of Divisional Meetings separate from Society Meetings, which custom has not only persisted for this division, but has become the practice of other divisions formed since. The first such meeting was held in conjunction with the dedication of the new Naval Ordnance Laboratory at White Oak, Maryland, on 30 June-1 July 1949.* On 28-29 December 1949 another Divisional Meeting was held on the campus of the University of Virginia, and the sites of subsequent Divisional Meetings are listed elsewhere in this program, along with the members who have served as Chairmen and Secretary-Treasurers over the years.

The Otto Laporte Memorial Lecture fund was established in 1971 by friends of Laporte and members of the Division. The Executive Committee chose a speaker each year to present the status of understanding in a subfield of fluid dynamics. The Otto Laporte lecture became an Award of the American Physical Society in 1985. In 1979 the Office of Naval Research funded the Fluid Dynamics Prize, thanks to the efforts of Dick Fowler, which has been given annually ever since as a Prize of the American Physical Society. The Office of Naval Research eventually discontinued its support of the Prize but, thanks to the efforts of Andreas Acrivos, funds were raised, primarily through the American Institute of Physics and the journal Physics of Fluids, to permanently endow the Prize. In 2004 the Division decided to combine the Otto Laporte Award and the Fluid Dynamics Prize into a single Fluid Dynamics Prize and to convert the Otto Laporte Award into the Otto Laporte Lecture, to be given at the annual meeting by the Fluid Dynamics Prize recipient. This action significantly enhanced the stature of the Fluid Dynamics Prize. It added the support from Friends of Otto Laporte to its endowment and brought its stipend in line with those of other major APS Prizes. In 1998 an APS Award named for Andreas Acrivos was established, with support from members and friends of the DFD, to be given annually to a young investigator for the best recent Ph.D. thesis in fluid mechanics. Also, since 1984, the Frenkiel Award has been given by the DFD for the best paper in the Physics of Fluids during the preceding year by a young investigator.

The journal Physics of Fluids is not an activity of the DFD but its history is closely related to the history of the Division. Physics of Fluids can trace its history to a recommendation made in 1957 by an American Institute of Physics (AIP) Committee to Study Publishing Problems in Physics. That five-member committee, chaired by Edward U. Condon and including François N. Frenkiel among its members, began deliberations in the fall of 1956, and in January 1957 presented the motion:

“It is recommended to the Governing Board of the AIP that a new journal be established by the AIP devoted to the physics of fluids covering kinetic theory, statistical mechanics, structure and general physics of gases, liquids, and other fluids.”

It is clear that Frenkiel was the driving force behind this proposal and he was appointed the first Editor, a position he held for the next twenty-four years. In 1982 Andreas Acrivos took over the editorship of the papers on fluid mechanics. The plasma papers split off as a separate journal in 1989.

With the founding of the Division of Plasma Physics, despite the break off in 1959 of a large area that had been considered fluid dynamics, the membership in the Division of Fluid Dynamics remained at about 4% of the society membership. In 1987 it was 1700, in 2023 it was 3299, over 6% of APS Membership!


The early history of the Division was provided by Raymond Emrich, who was a great force in the development of the DFD over several decades. Ray recruited this writer to the Division. Comments and corrections from Guenter Ahlers, Jerry Gollub and Andreas Acrivos are gratefully acknowledged.

* The White Oak Naval Surface Warfare Center, as it came to be known, was recommended for Base Closure in July 1995. It is now being restored through a land reuse plan.

Harold Grad (sitting) and Sydney Chapman;
Harold Grad (sitting) and Sydney Chapman; American Physical Society Press Conference on 'Fluid Dynamics and Plasma Physics,' Grand Ballroom, New Yorker Hotel, New York, NY.

L-R: Joseph Kaplan and Otto Laporte
L-R: Joseph Kaplan and Otto Laporte

L-R: Raymond J. Emrich, Martin D. Whitaker, Francois N. Frenkiel
L-R: Raymond J. Emrich, Martin D. Whitaker, Francois N. Frenkiel