Mary Sears Medal


MARY SEARS (1905–1997)

Mary Sears (July 18, 1905 – September 2, 1997) was one of the leading oceanographers of her day, playing a prominent role in the development of modern oceanography. Born in Wayland, MA in 1905, Mary attended Radcliffe College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1927, her master’s degree in 1929, and her Ph.D. in Zoology in 1933. While a graduate student, she worked at Harvard University with Henry Bigelow, founder and first Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). As one of Bigelow’s first ten hires at WHOI in 1932, Mary would play an essential role in the institution’s development over the next fifty years. From 1932 to 1943, she worked as a plankton researcher at WHOI, while also teaching at Harvard, Radcliffe, and Wellesley.

In 1943, Mary began her long association with the U.S. Navy. As a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the WAVES, she organized and headed the new Oceanographic Unit of the Navy Hydrographic Office. During her tenure as its head, the Oceanographic Unit expanded to over 400 personnel and was charged with aiding the Navy in achieving strategic advantages in its war effort by providing analyses of tides, surf heights, and other essential oceanographic metrics. Roger Revelle, who worked with her during the war, was later to recall that “because the Federal Government has very little memory, it is generally forgotten that the first Oceanographer of the Navy in modern times was a short, rather shy and prim WAVE Lieutenant, J.G. …They underestimated the powerful natural force that is Mary Sears.”

After the war, Mary returned to WHOI where she made her lasting mark on oceanography through community leadership and scholarly publication. In 1959, she chaired and helped establish the First International Congress on Oceanography, held at the United Nations. Mary compiled and edited the invited lectures from that Congress, publishing in 1961 the book Oceanography, considered by many to provide the benchmark against which all future oceanographic research would be evaluated. In an encore performance, Mary co-edited with Daniel Merriman, Oceanography: The Past, which compiled invited lectures from the Third International Congress on the History of Oceanography, held at WHOI in 1980 in celebration of the Institution’s fiftieth anniversary. In addition to these books, Mary helped establish the journals Deep-Sea Research and Progress in Oceanography, serving as the founding editor of the former from 1953 to 1974.

In recognition of her service to the oceanographic community, Mary received recognition in both usual and unusual ways. In 1964, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1985, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, Deep-Sea Research dedicated an issue to her, noting that Mary Sears “has probably played a greater role in the advancement of oceanographic studies than any other woman.” In 2000, the U.S. Navy recognized her service by launching the 300-foot Oceanographic Survey Ship USNS Mary Sears named in her honor.

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