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.”
As a single woman in 1939, Sears bought herself a small lot of land, went in to Wood Lumber in Falmouth, picked out a set of house plans, and had her own house built. Remarkable for the time. That’s how Sears lived her life. If something was lacking, she didn’t complain. She didn’t sit around and wait for someone else to do it. She up and did it herself—and said not a word about it.
A pioneer is a leader. Self-sufficient. Disciplined. Intelligent. Honorable. Generous. “She really was a pioneer,” says Wendy (Nies) Denton, who lived with Mary in her later years and whose late ex-husband, Paul Denton, spent summers with Mary as a boy. “You look at the WHOI trustee pictures for years and years and she’s the only woman among a bunch of white men. That was her world. She would say she was an officer and a gentleman cause that’s what they said in the Navy.”
After a childhood in rural Wayland, Sears attended the Winsor School, a private girls’ school in Boston, and Radcliffe College in Cambridge, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1927, her master’s degree in 1929, and her Ph.D. in zoology in 1933.
Although her Winsor classmates thought she was destined for politics, it was Mary’s love and curiosity for the natural world that turned her toward science. “She lived near Heard Pond in Wayland,” Nan Denton recalls. “She told me how she loved to go down to the pond and collect frogs and little fish. She lived on a beautiful, quiet road, very much surrounded by nature and natural beauty.”
As a graduate student at Radcliffe, she met Henry Bigelow, the head of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Bigelow was one of the world’s preeminent marine biological and oceanographic experts. Working side by side as his assistant, Sears received an invaluable education in the nascent field of oceanography.
A summer research stint at the Marine Biological Laboratory brought Sears to Woods Hole for the first time in the early 1930s. Throughout the ensuing decade, she balanced winters as Bigelow’s assistant at Harvard and summers in Woods Hole as a planktonologist at “The Institution,” as she called it, where Bigelow was founding director. Sears was one of the first (and only female) research assistants initially hired by WHOI.
World War II proved a critical pivot point in Sears’ career, as it was for many of her generation. In 1943, she joined the Navy Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) of the United States Naval Reserve. Commissioned as a Lieutenant, junior grade, she went directly to Washington, D.C. to lead the newly formed Oceanographic Unit of the Navy Hydrographic Office. The U.S. military was desperate for anyone with oceanographic expertise. Sears’ intelligence, knowledge, research skills, and highly touted organizational abilities (her index card cataloging system was legendary) were a natural fit. Sears’ team collected and synthesized relevant ocean data on everything from currents to weather, tides, and topography into intelligence that the Navy could use to plan its amphibious attacks.
Misinformation about tidal depths had already cost the Navy heavily in the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific in November 1943, where amphibious craft ended up stranded far from shore and the resulting casualties numbered in the thousands. Thanks to Sears’ discipline and hard work (she often pulled all-nighters compiling her reports), the Navy would not make the same mistake again.
“It is generally forgotten that the first Oceanographer of the Navy in modern times was a short, rather shy and prim WAVE Lieutenant, junior grade,” Roger Revelle, the former director of the esteemed Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who worked with Sears in the Hydro Office, once remarked. “[The U.S. Navy] underestimated the powerful natural force that is Mary Sears. That tiny oceanographic unit soon became a division, and finally the entire Hydrographic Office evolved into the Naval Oceanographic Office.”
After the war, Sears returned to her work at WHOI as a planktonologist. She also put her skills as a writer and editor to work. In addition to her 20 years editing the respected oceanographic journal Deep-Sea Research, many of the 20th century’s benchmark oceanographic texts bear Sears’ name and her editing stamp of approval. Her connection with WHOI continued long after her retirement in 1970, as a Scientist Emeritus and a Member of the Corporation.
Although women were not permitted on sea research voyages (at least not at WHOI) until the 1960s, Sears had several lifetimes’ worth of adventures, including a Wellesley College-funded research trip on a fishing vessel in Peru in the 1930s and trips to Europe and Russia. Also, according to Wendy Denton, Sears’ home in Woods Hole was a bustling place with an open door, full of visitors and scientist friends from all over the world. “We jokingly accused her of running a bed and breakfast,” Wendy recalls with a laugh.
Although Sears never married and lived alone for most of her life, she had a vibrant circle of friends and a special relationship with the Dentons. Soon after she moved to Woods Hole, she became seriously ill and called the local physician, Dr. Joseph Denton. Dr. Denton brought Sears to his home, where his wife, Isobel, a nurse, insisted on tending to her. From then on, they were like family. When the Dentons later moved to New York, their children would stay with Aunt Mary every summer. “She was an integral part of our family for the rest of our lives,” says Nan Denton. “She introduced all of us to nature, to respect the environment. She also introduced me to the broader world. She had scientist friends all over the world. When I was in my late teens, she gave me a trip of a summer at the University of Oslo. She introduced me to cultures other than my own.”
For the Dentons, Aunt Mary was the consummate mentor. “I learned the importance of commitment to your career,” explains Ruth Eastman, another of the Denton children. “‘One day,’ she told me when I was starting out in publishing, ‘people will look up to you and come to you for advice.’ As if on cue, one day they did. Not every day, of course, but that first occurrence gave me silent satisfaction. Mary Sears truly was a beacon, an exceptional role model.”
In 2000, three years after Sears’ death, the U.S. Navy launched an oceanographic survey ship named in her honor. The USNS Mary Sears is the first Navy research vessel named after a woman. While Sears would certainly have demurred at such pomp on her behalf, she would have approved of the fact that it was a research vessel—one that now welcomes women scientists aboard.