Winter 2019

In Memoriam:
DRC Co-Founder Russell R. Dynes


Dear Friends & Colleagues,

We are sorry to share some very sad news. One of the early pioneers of the disaster research field and co-founder of the Disaster Research Center, Professor Emeritus Russell R. Dynes, passed away this past weekend. He was 95.

The passing of Russell Dynes is, for DRC, the end of an era. We were saddened by the loss of DRC co-founder and disaster research pioneer Professor Emeritus Enrico (Henry) L. Quarantelli just two years ago. With the loss of Henry and now Russ, our DRC family is feeling acutely the effect of passing years.

Russ and Henry were friends and colleagues for over a half-century. Theirs was a unique scientific partnership, two people who came from very different scholarly backgrounds in sociology to build a field that has not only nurtured and nourished generations of scholars but which has at its central moral guidepost the benefit of our societies and communities. Certainly, two lives well-lived.

Many of you knew Russ well and will remember his cheerful demeanor. Even as his health and physical vitality declined, his mind and easygoing good nature remained intact and were a treat for everyone here. The moment he met a student, a scholar new to the field, or an international visitor to the Center, he would immediately be able to conjure a recollection of a visit to the person’s home-city, a tie to their interest, a connection upon which to build. He had the wonderful ability to set someone at ease and quickly build rapport. It is how many of us heard that he was born in Ontario, Canada, or heard his accounts of his time during World War II, helping to build the petroleum pipeline from India, through Burma, and into China, or his travels on fieldwork and for conferences around the globe. He was, at all times, a sharp observer of human behavior, as individuals and in groups and organizations. His classic book, Organized Behavior in Disaster, now nearly 50 years old, presents durable analyses and findings that remain foundational in our understanding of disaster.

Neil Postman, the noted communications theorist, in Technopoly, bitterly criticized the social sciences, saying that “Theories in social science disappear, apparently, because they are boring, not because they are refuted.” Russ’s work was never boring, but it has been refined and has thus steadily informed generations of researchers around the world.

His early research focus and his dissertation topic was the sociology of religion—perhaps an unlikely early preparation for building the field of disaster research. Nevertheless, these studies, encompassing perception, production of knowledge, and organizations, were an indirect yet excellent ground for studying organizational change in disaster: change that is itself grounded in perceptions, interpretations of changing conditions, and formal and informal organizing processes. In his dissertation which focused on “a study of the contrasting typologies of Church and Sect,” with its focus on “social order” and “cultural definitions,” we may see at least a glimmer of the thinking that went into the “DRC typology” of established, expanding, extending, and emergent groups.

Russ’s work will persist in things that we talk about every day: emergence, the DRC typology, social capital. Every time we write about those things, we preserve his legacy and his memory. He led us down interesting paths, be it to reconsider what we can learn from slower onset and chronic processes and hazards, to consider historical accounts, such as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake as the first modern disaster, or even further back to Genesis, Noah, and disaster planning and the cultural significance of the great flood story. We can be grateful for his long and productive life, one whose pursuits led him around the world and kept him coming into the office well into his 80s. Although we are deeply saddened, those of us who knew him will reflect on many good times. Those who didn’t know him, or know him only as an important scholar in the field, still have the benefit of his many contributions.

Many of those accomplishments were outside the pure research realm, though still of academic significance:  in service to the sociological profession. He chaired the Department of Sociology at The Ohio State University, then left OSU to become Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association from 1977 to 1982. After the Three Mile Island accident, he served as the head of the Task Force on Emergency Preparedness and Response for the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, and then joined the University of Delaware as chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice from 1982-1988, a momentous interval. It was during that time that Henry Quarantelli and the Disaster Research Center moved from OSU to its present home at the University of Delaware.

Russ’s honors are many, including multiple Fulbright awards and scholarly awards from the disaster research community: the E. L. Quarantelli Award for Contributions to Social Science Disaster Theory, and the Charles E. Fritz Award for Distinguished Career Service to the Field of Disaster Research, both from the International Sociological Association Research Committee on Disasters. He was honored in a Research Committee special session at the World Congress of Sociology in 2010. Reflecting on this session, we are reminded of many other recent losses to the community. Russ Skyped into the session and another revered DRC alum, the late Bill Anderson, sent comments, which were read by Joe Scanlon, now also gone. But Bill’s comments speak a powerful testimony to how we all feel about Russ Dynes:

“My mentor and friend Russell Dynes has been a most remarkable and productive figure in the social science disaster research community for nearly five decades. With far-reaching intellect and collaborative nature, he arrived on the scene of the nascent disaster research field at just the right time to provide leadership to help build a community of scholars that cuts across national borders and to show the way to new and creative ways to capture the essence of human behavior in disaster, train future generations of researchers, and build bridges to policymakers and practitioners.”

Russ was predeceased by his wife, Sue, who also formed strong connections with students and fellow scholars over the years. He was also predeceased by his son, Jon. In his late years, Russ’s children made a special effort to keep the DRC family informed about Russ and to bring him to various retirement parties and student workshops. We are so grateful to them for generously sharing their father with us over the years, and extend our deepest sympathies at this time. The family’s obituary for their father and grandfather has been posted.

In 2018, we began a conversation with Russ, indicating how much his former students and the research community would like to honor his impact. We are thankful that we had those discussions prior to his passing, and that he knew – we hope – how much we valued and cherished him as a scholar, a mentor, and a friend.

The family has indicated that those wishing to make a contribution in memory of Dr. Russell Dynes to help establish a fund in his honor at the University of Delaware, can do so on the University of Delaware's secure website, indicating "in memory of Dr. Russell Dynes."

A memorial page will be posted from the DRC website in the next few days. We encourage you to visit that page and share your memories and reflections. If you have photos you wish to share, please send them to


James Kendra & Tricia Wachtendorf
Directors, Disaster Research Center

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