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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 |

A meeting of WHOI Trustees in 1951. Mary Sears, the lone woman in the photo, stands at center. Photo courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives

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.

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