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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 |

Mary Sears prepares to christen Atlantis II in 1963. The ship would go on to sail more than 1 million miles for ocean science research. Photo courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives

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.

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