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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 |

An aerial view of Woods Hole including WHOI facilities with the R/V Chain and R/V Crawford at dock. Each of the ships made more than 100 cruises for scientific research. Photo courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives

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.

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