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Celebrating an oceanographic life

WHOI looks back at the legacy of co-founder of MIT-WHOI Joint Program, former Director of Research and Provost at WHOI, Art Maxwell

Art Maxwell

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Future Ocean Cover This article printed in Oceanus Spring 2020


Arthur (Art) Maxwell was more than a brilliant ocean scientist: He was a generous, approachable leader who cared deeply about his colleagues and students.

“Art was a legend, a mentor, and a trusted friend,” said Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Trustee Jamie Austin, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics where Maxwell spent the final decade of his long career.

In the 1960s and 70s, Maxwell served as WHOI Director of Research and Provost, working closely with WHOI President Paul Fye and helping to found the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography. During his time at the Institution, Maxwell also pursued his own research in geophysics. Among other achievements, he was appointed President of the American Geophysical Union (1976-1978) and co-led an expedition of the Deep-Sea Drilling Project, which provided critical evidence to support the theory of plate tectonics by demonstrating that the seafloor under the South Atlantic was spreading.

Maxwell began his career in one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Navy, serving as quartermaster on the ammunition ship Lassen in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, Maxwell went to Scripps Institute of Oceanography, where he worked with pioneering oceanographers Walter Munk and Roger Revelle; the latter was so impressed with Maxwell that he took on the role of graduate advisor for the first time in order to mentor him. Maxwell then moved from California to Washington, DC, to work for the Office of Naval Research at a time when the Navy was a leading funder of research in ocean science.

“Art was a legend, a mentor, and a trusted friend.”
—Jamie Austin, WHOI Trustee

“It was always very interesting around our household,” reminisced Maxwell’s daughter, Delle. “Scientists from around the world were always passing through. We met people like Jacques Piccard and Willard Bascom—leading lights in oceanography. As a child, I imagined theirs to be a most exotic and adventurous lifestyle. In retrospect, my father was always at the intersection of adventure, intellectual pursuit, and academic pioneering.”


Art Maxwell

Art Maxwell (center), along with Jim Dean and Dick Von Herzen, remove a core aboard Glomar Challenger on Deep-Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) Leg 3 in 1968. (Photo credit: DSDP)

In 2018, a year before his death, Art Maxwell returned to WHOI at the age of 93 to attend the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Joint Program, which he helped initiate half a century before. To celebrate his contributions to WHOI, Delle and her husband Pat Hanrahan gave $1.5 million to endow the Maxwell-Hanrahan Fund for Education and Research at MIT, which funds students to carry out oceanographic research at sea. They gave an additional $1 million to WHOI’s Arthur E. Maxwell Graduate Student Fund, established in 2003 by Austin—a Joint-Program alumnus (PhD ’79)—to honor his much-beloved mentor.

“I can say without hesitation that his input steered me in good directions for more than four decades,” Austin said. “I will never forget him.”


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