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Falmouth’s Mary Sears—she was ‘a powerful natural force’

Mary Sears she was “a powerful natural force”, May 2017 Cape Cod LIFE |

WHOI’s Mary Sears poses behind stacks of work. Photo courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives

Falmouth resident was the Navy’s first oceanographer, a longtime WHOI scientist and committed to civic affairs

One of the special recognitions bestowed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is The Mary Sears Woman Pioneer in Oceanography Award.

That’s quite a mouthful for a woman who preferred that her research and work speak louder than any commendations or public recognition. Nevertheless, it’s a fitting tribute to Mary Sears (1905-1997), a former Woods Hole resident who quietly changed the course of oceanographic history, contributed to its growth as a science, and helped establish WHOI.

Superlatives abound about Sears’ remarkable career and her accomplishments in the field of oceanography: first oceanographer of the Navy; founding member of WHOI; chair of the First International Congress on Oceanography (held at the United Nations in New York); founding editor of Deep-Sea Research. None of these phrases contain the word woman, although it could be added to each and they’d still hold true. Woman or no, Mary Sears was a true pioneer in every sense of the word.

Beyond the superlatives was a woman, short, shy, and bespectacled. To a lucky few, she was known simply as “Aunt Mary”: the one who would leave surprise picture books in the mailboxes of every house on her street that had children; the one who showed up at the home of the Dentons’, her adopted family, at Christmas with a car packed to the gills with presents (most of them books) all signed “from Santa” long after the children knew of the ruse; the community volunteer who was a committed member of the Falmouth School Committee and Falmouth Town Meeting for decades; the tireless environmentalist—perhaps before there was the label—who biked to and from her job at WHOI during the height of the 1970s oil crisis; the one who swam the length of Nobska Beach every day (from May to November), well into her 80s. “Once she made a commitment to something, she carried on with it,” remembers Nan Denton. “She was made of very stern stuff.”   

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