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Henry M. Stommel

Most of human history has not afforded men much chance to pursue their curiosity except as a hobby of the rich or within the refuge of a monastery. We can count ourselves fortunate to live in a society and at a time when we are actually paid to explore the universe.

H.M. Stommel

Hank Stommel arrived in Woods Hole in the summer of 1942, a time when oceanography was still in its infancy and the ocean was still a blank slate for scientists to explore. He remained affiliated with the Institution for much of the next 48 years, until his death in 1992. During that time, he fundamentally transformed oceanography and knowledge about the ocean, leaving behind a legacy that lives on in the theories he developed and the people he touched.

Many aspects of modern oceanography benefited from Stommel’s curiosity. He is probably best known for major advances in the 1940s and 1950s that form the basis for today's understanding of global ocean circulation. In particular, he determined that Earth's rotation and curvature are essential in producing strong currents like the Gulf Stream on the western side of every ocean basin, and that changes in the density of seawater caused by differences in temperature and salinity contribute to the formation of deep oceanic flows.

His vision and foresight led to the creation of two comprehensive and unparalleled studies of global ocean processes: the Mid-Ocean Dynamics Experiment (MODE) and the Geochemical Ocean Section Study (GEOSECS). These two initiatives fundamentally changed understanding of the ocean system and helped usher in the era of modern physical and chemical oceanographic research. They also gave countless oceanographers, young and old, the opportunity to go to sea—something that Stommel believed strongly in, in part to experience the object of their studies, but also to help form the individual. "Work at sea rubs off the sharp edges, and makes us better people," he once wrote.

Henry Melson Stommel was born in Wilmington, Delaware, on September 27, 1920. When he was very young, his family moved to his father's native Sweden, but his mother later returned with her son to Wilmington and Stommel remained separated from his father for the rest of his life. In 1925, his mother moved again, this time to Brooklyn, New York, to live with several of her family members, including her father, Levin Franklin Melson. By many accounts, Melson was a quiet, thoughtful man who encouraged his grandson's early interest in science. Stommel eventually attended Yale University, starting in chemistry and then switching to physics before graduating in 1942.

As a conscientious objector to the war, he was required to complete three years of work out of uniform, so he chose to remain at Yale and teach analytic geometry and celestial navigation to Navy officer candidates and enlisted sailors. It was during this time that Stommel began training for the ministry, but he stopped after one semester when he found it too intellectually confining.

In 1944, when Stommel was in his second year as an astronomy graduate student at Yale, he met famed astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer. It was becoming clear that, like his recent foray into divinity, astronomy was not suited to Stommel, so Spitzer suggested he apply to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Stommel joined the WHOI staff at a time when the Institution was being transformed from a summer-only field station into an important and bustling part of the U.S. war effort. He began by helping develop instruments for submarines and instructing naval officers in their use. Later, he worked with Maurice Ewing on acoustics research and anti-submarine warfare. Eventually, he met Jeffries Wyman, who was studying cumulus convection, a subject that Stommel found fascinating and that led to his first scientific paper in 1946.

His publications eventually grew to include some 140 scientific papers, 12 books, and 65 other articles and papers. His list of honors includes membership in the national science academies of the U.S., U.K., France, and the former U.S.S.R. and recognitions from the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Sciences. In 1982, he received the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and in 1989 the U.S. National Medal of Science.

What was equally remarkable about Stommel was the breadth and intensity of his curiosity and his amazingly diverse interests (he was also an accomplished printer, painter, gentleman farmer, and fiction writer). His colleagues often described a scientific conversation with Hank as an encounter that required their full and undivided attention—and one that often proved well worth the physical and intellectual effort.

Stommel was also well known for his generosity with his ideas. He sparked many new research directions for scientists and initiated a number of international oceanographic studies. In their introduction to a 1992 special issue of Oceanus magazine, WHOI's Jim Luyten and Nelson Hogg wrote, “For most of the past 50 years, [he] was the most influential figure in oceanography. Through his simple brilliance, his personal magnetism, and his great zest for life, he inspired legions of oceanographers.”

He was also, somewhat paradoxically, an early proponent of the development of autonomous underwater vehicles and sensors, a trend that today results in fewer scientists having to spend days and weeks at sea. His thinking was quintessentially Stommel—mildly contradictory, yet ultimately right on both accounts and joyously willing to revel in the contradiction, especially if it meant that we ultimately expand our knowledge of the ocean. "Science," he once wrote, "is a voyage of intellectual exploration and an expression of the human spirit."

Last updated: August 7, 2012