In Memoriam: Derek W. Spencer


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death January 16, 2006 of Scientist Emeritus and former Associate Director for Research Derek W. Spencer at his home in Tucson, Arizona at age 71.  He had kidney problems and had been in poor health since last winter.

Derek Wardle Spencer was born May 2, 1934 in South Shields, England, and attended Manchester University, receiving a B.S. degree in geology in 1954 and a Ph.D. degree in geochemistry in 1957.  He was a graduate teaching assistant at the university from 1954 to 1957, and after receiving his doctorate worked as a geochemist and supervisor of geochemical research for Imperial Oil Ltd. in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, from 1957 to 1965.

He joined the Institution staff as an associate scientist in the Chemistry and Geology Department in November 1965, hired by the chair of the department, John Hunt, shortly before the departments were reorganized at WHOI into a Chemistry Department and a Geology and Geophysics Department.  He was appointed a senior scientist in 1971, and  served as Chemistry Department chair from 1974 to 1978, continuing the process begun by John Hunt to build the department into a world recognized marine chemistry and chemical oceanography research and education department.  During the 1970s he advised three graduate students, William Fitzgerald, James Murray and Mike Bacon.

In August 1978  Derek was appointed Associate Director for Research, succeeding Ferris Webster, who left the Institution to assume a position at NOAA, and he worked closely through the 1980s with Director John Steele.  In June 1987 he was appointed to the newly created position of Associate Director for Interdepartmental Research, and Bob Gagosian was appointed Associate Director for Research. In August 1989 Derek decided to return to science in the Chemistry Department, and in 1991 he retired from WHOI and was named a Scientist Emeritus.

During his WHOI career he worked closely with Buck Ketchum, Peter Brewer and Peter Sachs, Fred Sayles, Bill Jenkins, Judy McDowell, Mike Bacon, John Farrington and many others as his research interests widened to include particulate matter in the oceans and ocean waste management issues. Although his early career was focused on mineralogy and petroleum geology, much of his scientific research career was centered on the Geochemical Ocean Section Study (GEOSECS), an International Decade for Ocean Exploration project supported by the National Science Foundation that took place in the early 1970s. He served as chief scientist for four of the 24 GEOSECS voyages in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. 

His research interests included the distribution of chemical species in seawater, mathematical modeling and statistical techniques for use in geochemical problems, and factors controlling element distribution in sediments.  He was the author or co-author of about 70 scientific publications in geology and geochemistry, and he served as a consulting editor in oceanography for the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology from 1979 to 1982.

Colleagues note his ability to go to the heart of a problem and his tenacity to stick to the job until he got an answer. Fomer Director John Steele noted that  Derek "was an excellent administrator combining an ability to coordinate diverse interests and activities, with very definite ideas on the direction of the Institution." When he returned to science after more than a decade in the administration, Derek spent considerable time assisting and guiding younger scientists, offering to read and comment on manuscripts or proposals, helping with computer programs and issues, and sharing his knowledge with anyone who knocked on his door.  He was, as one Chemistry Department colleague noted, “a good leader, wise counselor, and excellent colleague.” 

He was active in many professional societies and organizations, including the Geochemical Society, American Geophysical Union, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Petroleum Geologists, and the Alberta Society of Petroleum Geologists.  He served on many national and international committees, including the Ocean Sciences Board of the National Academy of Sciences, as a member of the Geochemical Ocean Section Study (GEOSECS) scientific advisory committee and executive committee, the Controlled Ecosystem Pollution Experiment (CEPEX) Steering Committee, and as a member and chair of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS).  He was also a member of the National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for Ocean Sciences, and the Advisory Committee to the Scientific Computing Division of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.    

Derek moved to Lebanon, Indiana in 1992 shortly after his retirement from WHOI to be closer to his family, and in 2001 moved to Tucson, Arizona.

Survivors include his wife, Ann Spencer of Tucson, AZ;  two sons, Roger Spencer of Phoenix, AZ and Andrew Spencer of Boise, Idaho; a daughter, Caroline Boyer of Sheridan, Indiana;  and seven grandchildren.

Funeral services are private. Memorial donations may be made to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Fenno MS#40, Woods Hole, MA 02543.

A celebration of life will be held July 10, 2006 from 5 to 7 p.m. on the terrace of Fenno on the Quissett Campus of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.


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Derek Spencer