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Gerard Hendrik Matthes was born on March 16, 1874, in Amsterdam, Holland. He and his twin brother, Francois Emile, travelled to the United States in 1891 to attend M.I.T. In 1895 Gerard became a draftsman and instrumentman with Alexis H. French, the Town Engineer for Brookline, Massachusetts. Gerard became a naturalized citizen in 1896. His appointment with the U.S. Government as Hydrographic Aid, U.S. Geological Survey in 1897 started an association with government service that lasted forty-five years. Francois became the Chief Topographer for the U.S. Geological Survey. Gerard Matthes' projects included an investigation of the sources of pollution and power potential of the Potomac River in 1897. In 1898 he was sent to southeastern Colorado to make plane table surveys of reservoir sites and learn about irrigation practices. He did a topographical survey of reservoir sites and much mapping of Colorado and Arizona in 1899.

In 1901 Matthes went on an expedition to Sumatra to observe a solar eclipse. In 1902 he was in charge of the computation division of the Water Resources Branch and helped in designing the first hydroelectric plant on the Susquehanna River. Also in 1902, he was selected by the Secretary of the Department of the Interior as the first Commissioner of the Reclamation Service. The need for construction of public works in the Oklahoma Territory brought him to Oklahoma in 1903 as the municipal engineer. In 1904 he married Mary Bewick. The first irrigation storage dam was completed by the Reclamation Service in 1906. Matthes resigned from the Reclamation Service and accepted a position with the Colorado Power Company. He was appointed Division Engineer for the Pennsylvania Water Commission in 1914, and was in charge of flood inventory. In 1915 he joined the staff of the Miami Conservancy District in Ohio.

Congress authorized the first water resources investigation for improvement of navigation, control of floods, development of hydroelectric power, and utilization of mineral resources in 1920. Along with the Tennessee Valley Authority Matthes first used aerial photography in this investigation. In 1923 he became a consultant for Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. in New York City. He was appointed to the Committee on Photographic Surveying of the Board of Survey and Maps of the Federal Government in 1925.

As a U.S. Army Engineer Matthes was sent to Norfolk, Virginia in 1929. Along with General Ferguson, President of the Mississippi River Commission, Matthes, as Principal Engineer, took an inspection trip of the Mississippi River in 1932. In 1936 the largest hydraulic river model was built by the Waterways Experiment Station and in 1942 Matthes was made first Civilian Director of this department. He was made Water Consultant for President Roosevelt's National Resources Committee in 1936. As a consultant about flood control to the U.S. Army, Matthes was sent to Dennison, Texas in 1943. Also in 1943 Matthes was made an honorary member of the American Society of Civil Engineers who also awarded him the Norman Medal in 1950. In 1945 he retired from federal service. Until 1953 Matthes remained president of the Rocky Mountain Hydraulic Laboratory at Allenspark, Colorado. He also continued to be a consultant for private and corporate projects until he died on March 3, 1959.