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Alfred Woodcock

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has received word of the death February 26, 2005 of Scientist Emeritus Alfred H. Woodcock at the Salem Lutheran Home in Oakland, CA after suffering a stroke. He was 99.

Alfred Woodcock was one of the first employees of the Institution and one of the first crew members of the 142-foot ketch Atlantis, which he sailed as an able seaman on its maiden voyage from the shipyard in Copenhagen, Denmark, home to Woods Hole in 1931. He served as a laboratory and ship’s technician from November 1931 to 1940 and was appointed a research associate at WHOI in 1942, oceanographer in 1950, and an associate in meteorology in 1963. He left WHOI in 1965 but remained affiliated with the Institution and was named scientist emeritus in 1984. A self-taught scientist and observer of nature, he made countless contributions to oceanography and meteorology.

Alfred Herbert Woodcock was born September 7, 1905 in Atlanta, GA and grew up in Georgia and Florida, the son of English immigrants. His father did not believe in formal education, and after working on his grandfather’s farm in Florida, Al Woodcock decided to drop out of Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach at age 15. He held 25 jobs in ten years, moving north in 1927 to pursue his dream of spending his life on a farm. Woodcock realized he needed to learn how to farm, so he took a two-year course at the Massachusetts Agricultural College, now the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In 1929 he went to work at The Uplands Orchard in Hudson, whose owner was a Harvard graduate who also loved the sea and owned a 35-foot yawl. During a spring 1930 trip along the coast they anchored in Woods Hole, a chance event that would change Al Woodcock’s future.

While in Woods Hole, Woodcock went in to get a haircut at the local barbershop, and while waiting asked about the large brick building under construction across the street on the waterfront. He was told it would be an oceanographic institution with Harvard biologist Dr. Henry Bigelow as director, and that they needed a crew to go to Copenhagen to bring the lab’s new research vessel being built there back to Woods Hole. Woodcock wanted more sailing experience, so he tracked down Columbus Iselin, who was to be the captain of the vessel, and asked him for a job. He was interviewed during a coffee break on the steps of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and hired on the spot, joining the WHOI staff in May 1931. Years later, Iselin said of Woodcock: “I liked him at once, and signed him on as an ordinary seaman at $45 a month, feeling that he would be a steadying influence among what looked like a rather turbulent crew…From the outset it was obvious that Woodcock was much more than a young sailor…He has been scientifically…productive…In fact, he is a remarkable person.”

Woodcock made many voyages on Atlantis in the 1930s, studying all aspects of nature and the sea. As a laboratory and ship’s technician from 1931 to 1940, he made hydrographic stations, noted the penetration of light into the surface waters, studied plankton migration and collected meteorological data. In 1935 he was the only scientist on the ship’s first winter cruise in the North Atlantic when Columbus Iselin could not make the cruise owing to his wife’s illness. In her 1978 book On Almost Any Wind author Susan Schlee recalled: “Under either condition, mild or miserable, Woodcock appeared in the deck lab for every station. In the highly unusual role of single scientist he felt himself responsible for all data gathered. As if his scientific responsibilities were not enough, he chose to spend hours standing watch. Huddled in the bow or clinging halfway up the mast, he watched all that moved through sea and air.”

Three of his first six papers were written about birds at sea, including a classic 1940 paper “Observations of Herring Gull Soaring,” his first scientific paper. He made numerous contributions to marine biology, chemistry, geophysics, physical oceanography and ocean engineering, writing papers on a wide range of topics. Among his more than 80 scientific papers were “Patterns in Pond Ice” in the Journal of Meteorology in 1947, “The Swimming of Dolphins” in Nature in 1948, and “Sea Salt in a Tropical Storm” in the Journal of Meteorology in 1950. He was the first to observe Langmuir cells and circulation at sea, which helped him explain why Physalia, the Portuguese Man-of-War, sailed to the left of the wind in the Northern Hemisphere and to the right in the Southern Hemisphere by the Coriolis effect. During the 1940s he worked on classified projects for the U.S. Navy, helping them detect enemy submarines using the newly developed bathythermograph, finding ways to defoam the wake of the Navy’s amphibious landing craft, and using smoke screens for naval operations. During 1944 he worked as a government employee for the Office of Scientific Research and Development in the Department of the Navy.

His studies of cloud mixing with Jeffries Wyman after World War II, known as the Wyman-Woodcock Report, changed the conventional wisdom and influenced the work of Henry Stommel and many others. Much of what Al Woodcock had observed through the years from birds at sea was applied to his other interests and his tremendous curiosity about how things worked. He is perhaps best known for his long-term studies of sea-salt particles and their role in the formation of rain and fog, publishing a series of seven pioneering papers starting in 1949 on atmospheric sea-salt, even chasing hurricanes to collect particles.

Interest in this work led him to Hawaii in the 1950s, where he conducted field studies of rain particles. He spent almost a year there in 1951, returning often for research studies. In an airplane trip over Hawaii in the 1950s with colleague Duncan Blanchard, he is reported to have remarked to a flight attendant that “If God does make it rain, we want to know exactly how he does it.” In 1963 he took a leave of absence from WHOI to join the faculty of the University of Hawaii (UH) at Manoa as a research associate in meteorology and oceanography, telling Director Paul Fye that “Hawaii is naturally well endowed for the study of the physical chemistry of the warm rain process.” He was appointed a research affiliate in the Department of Oceanography at UH in 1972. He ended his leave of absence and left WHOI in October 1965 but remained affiliated with the Institution as an associate in meteorology from October 1963 until his appointment as a scientist emeritus in 1984. While in Hawaii he continued to explore nature, making more than 350 trips up the 14,000-foot volcano Mauna Kea, the most recent in 1983. He wrote related papers on mountain breathing and permafrost, and the changes in lake level of Hawaii’s Lake Waiau, one of the highest alpine lakes in the U.S. In the 1980s he spent several summers on Cape Cod, trying to understand the formation of fog in the Cape Cod Canal and in Buzzards Bay. He hoped to be able to forecast fogs for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Al Woodcock’s contributions to oceanography and meteorology were recognized by Long Island University, which awarded him an honorary D. Sc. degree in 1963. The University noted his “insatiable curiosity and rapid grasp of chemical and mechanical techniques of studying oceans” and called him “a man whose life work challenges Mark Twain’s observation that ‘Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.'” The degree citation reads in part: “Here is a scientist daily unraveling the mysteries of that which is most around us — ocean and atmosphere. His research has gained the profound respect of the nation’s foremost scientists. Here is a disciplined, inquiring mind, nurtured not by formalized higher education but rather by that intellectual curiosity which is the mother of invention and that persistency which is the father of lasting works.”

He is survived by two daughters, Joan Marie Wood of Oakland, CA and Nancy Ann Woods of Seneca, SC; a son, John Bradford Woodcock of Moshav Atzmon, Israel; two stepsons, Stig Rossby of Deltona, Fl and Tom Rossby of Saunderstown, RI; six grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews. His first wife, Mary Ellen (Hayes) Woodcock of South Hadley, MA whom he married in 1941, died in 1958. He was also the husband of the late Harriet (Alexander) Rossby Woodcock.

Burial services will be private, and his ashes will be scattered at sea.

Donations in Alfred Woodcock’s memory may be made to the Salem Lutheran Home, 2361 East 29th Street, Oakland, CA 94606-3511 Attention: Randy Street. Other inquiries may be made to Joan Wood, P.O. Box 3713, Oakland, CA 94609.

Alfred Woodcock