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Richard “Dick” Backus

Richard Haven Backus, a prominent biological oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was born in Rochester, NY, to Ruth Bowne Haven Backus and Sidney Kinney Backus on December 5, 1922. ‘Dick’ spent his happy childhood and youth in West Webster, NY, roaming the fields, orchards, and shores of Irondequoit Bay and Lake Ontario.  He graduated from The Harley School (1940) in Rochester, Dartmouth College, A.B. Botany (1947), and earned an M.S. in Vertebrate Zoology (1948) and Ph.D. in Ichthyology (1953), both from Cornell University.

Dick was president of the Outing Club at Dartmouth and spent much time enjoying work on Mt. Moosilauke, NH. His college years were interrupted by WWII during which he became a B-24 navigator (1st Lieutenant) in the 8th Army Air Force based in England during the intense air campaign over Germany.  After an emergency landing in Switzerland, Dick escaped internment to fly again in the Pacific/Japan theater in the Military Air Transport Command.  

As a doctoral student, Dick explored and studied the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland, spending some of the happiest days of his life in the small outport communities sailing on the schooner the Blue Dolphin. During graduate school he met Nell Jane Griffin of Winston-Salem, NC, whom he married in 1949, and while completing his doctorate accepted a position in 1952 at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) where he worked his entire career.  He served as a Biology Research Associate in Dr. J. Brackett Hersey’s underwater sound group studying the occurrence and transmission of sound in the sea and its application to oceanographic problems. He worked for a number of years studying the so-called “deep scattering layers,” aggregations of small fishes and other organisms that made vertical migrations to near the sea surface at night from daytime depths of several hundred meters.   Dick was appointed as a Marine Biologist in 1959 until 1963 when he was appointed Senior Scientist.

In 1967, Dick and the rest of his group transferred from WHOI’s Geophysics Department into the Biology Department. Establishing his own laboratory, Dick conducted a long-term research program on mesopelagic (midwater) fishes and devised a system of faunal provinces that apply widely to the distribution of the life of the entire pelagic Atlantic Ocean. He served as Chair of the Biology department from 1970-1974 and from 1985-1988. He was a Research Associate in Ichthyology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.  An outstanding achievement was the organization and editing of the multidisciplinary book Georges Bank published in 1987 by MIT Press. Through his science and his personality, Dick had a strong influence on a generation of ichthyologists, biological oceanographers, and biologists. 

Dick participated in and led many research cruises on a variety of WHOI vessels including the original Atlantis, was first chief scientist on the newly acquired vessels Chain and Knorr, and sailed on the Atlantis II, Oceanus, as well as earlier vessels Caryn, Bear, Crawford among others.  An accomplished naturalist, he also published interesting and ‘amusing’ papers on birds, bats and other animals he encountered at sea. Also a student of human nature, Dick relished the companionship, knowledge, and wisdom of the wonderful staff of engineers, mechanics, vessel masters, welders, bosuns, sailors, and other colorful ‘garage gang’ characters inhabiting WHOI.  He co-authored the 1970 book The Natural History of Sharks with Thomas H. Lineaweaver III. When the film Jaws was released in the United States in 1975, the Institution was inundated with calls from people curious about sharks. All calls were directed to Dick, who was also featured in People magazine and interviewed for newspapers, radio and TV programs that summer.

In 1973, his first marriage ended in divorce and in 1974 he married Denise Shea Franklin. Retiring from WHOI in 1988 he returned to his botanical interests, working to develop a comprehensive plant list for Barnstable County, acting as Curator of the Gray Herbarium at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, and conducting ‘guerrilla’ sampling activities in places like the Arnold Arboretum.  Dick was a member of the Board of the Penikese Island School and trips to the island were special to him.  He spent many pleasant hours with retired colleagues identifying personnel in old photographs from the WHOI Archives.

Dick sang for many years in the Greater Falmouth Mostly All Male Men’s Chorus and never tired of listening to Benny Goodman and other big band greats.  An avid ‘green thumb’ horticulturist and gardener he grew landscapes at successive houses in Woods Hole and Quissett, Massachusetts. He subtly and successfully transferred his love of reading, academic inquiry, language, geography, the outdoors, gardening, cooking, and natural wonder among his five children. He was very active in maintaining his extended family network including connections to a long-time rustic family camp in the Adirondacks of New York. He was a great story teller and spent much time writing a blog-based memoir which contains many of his stories from all periods of his life and recorded many for the local public radio station in Woods Hole.

Never wishing to miss a chance to explore the country in different ways, Dick died of complications of pneumonia during a West Coast stopover on a cross-country train excursion to visit his son Ed and daughter-in-law Jessica Miller in Oregon. He was preceded in death by a sister Priscilla Holden Backus Welsh.  He is survived by his wife Denise, a sister Anne Huntington Backus Wanzer, former wife Nell Jane Griffin Backus, children Jane Hamilton Backus Gelernter, Edward Holmes Backus, David Hunt Backus, Adah Shea Franklin Wright, and John Curtis Franklin as well as numerous grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins.

Donations can be made to The 300 Committee Land Trust or the Woods Hole Public Library.

A memorial gathering for Dick  will be held Saturday, October 13, at 1:00 p.m., at the Woods Hole Community Hall on Water Street. A reception will follow under the tent at the head of the main Clark parking lot.

Richard "Dick" Backus