WHOI Waypoints: USNS Mary Sears Honors WHOI Scientist


Planktonologist Mary Sears, a student of first Director Henry Bryant Bigelow, was one of the first 10 researchers appointed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Many years later, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, the editors of the journal Deep-Sea Research dedicated an issue to her and said she “has probably played a greater role in the advancement of oceanographic studies than any other woman.”

The US Navy honored Mary’s long service to marine science by naming its sixth Pathfinder class multi-mission oceanographic survey ship for her. Launched October 19, 2000, it is only the 12th Navy ship—and the first oceanographic vessel—to be named for a woman. The 329-foot (100-meter) Pathfinder class vessels are equipped for mapping the ocean floor to update nautical charts and for a variety of research tasks including sampling, measuring, and data processing.
Mary Sears was commissioned a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Waves (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1943. She was called to Washington, where she organized and headed the new Oceanographic Unit of the Navy Hydrographic Office. Her reports, titled Submarine Supplements to the Sailing Directions, predicted the presence of thermoclines (areas of abrupt water temperature change), where submarines could hide to escape enemy sonar detection. This information gave US forces an advantage. Mary returned to Woods Hole in 1947, transferring to the Navy Reserves and retiring as a commander in 1963.

Mary Sears made her most enduring contribution to oceanography as editor of several journals and books, as well as the Institution’s annual report and summary of investigations. She was a founding editor of Deep-Sea Research and Progress in Oceanography. Roger Revelle, longtime director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, called her “the conscience of oceanography who initiated and maintained an uncompromising standard of excellence in scientific publications about the oceans… She played a major role in creating the present world community of oceanographers from numerous countries and almost as many specialties.”
Mary chaired the First International Congress on Oceanography, held at the United Nations in 1959, and co-edited, with Daniel Merriman, Oceanography, The Past, as part of the Third International Congress on the History of Oceanography, held at Woods Hole in September 1980 in celebration of the Institution’s 50th anniversary.
In addition to her scientific and editorial contributions to WHOI, Mary was a longtime Member of the Corporation, serving as Clerk for more than 25 years. A bequest from Mary upon her death in 1997 has helped the Institution pursue its oceanographic research.

Because women were not permitted to go to sea until very late in her career, Mary’s only research voyage was aboard a Peruvian fishing vessel (and it was she, not the men aboard, who dove into the sea to retrieve a plankton net that had parted from the line!). Director Bob Gagosian concluded his remarks at the launch of USNS Mary Sears by observing, “I think it’s wonderful and altogether fitting that—at last— Mary Sears gets to go to sea in a manner befitting her.”