Mary Sears (1905-1997)
Mary Sears, a leading oceanographer, was born July 18, 1905, and raised in Wayland, Massachusetts. She graduated from the Winsor School in Boston in 1923, and she then attended Radcliffe College. Sears received her bachelor's degree in 1927, master's degree in 1929, and Ph.D. in zoology in 1933. While pursuing her graduate studies, she worked at Harvard University.
Sears became one of the first ten research assistants to be appointed to the staff at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In 1940, she joined the staff of Woods Hole as a full-time planktonologist. During this time she also served as a research assistant at Harvard, a tutor at Radcliffe, and an instructor at Wellesley College. In 1941 Sears served in Pisco Bay, Peru, as the Grant and Faculty Fellow for Wellesley College's Committee on Inter-American Cultural and Artistic Relations.
Sears’ association with the U.S. Navy started after she returned from Peru, when she was commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). Sears was called to Washington, DC, where she organized and headed the new Oceanographic Unit of the Navy Hydrographic Office and became the first oceanographer in the Navy. Sears took the Oceanographic Unit from an obscure group to a full-blown Division. Eventually the Hydrographic Office evolved into the Naval Oceanographic Office.
After the war, Sears spent a year in Copenhagen, where she received the Johannes Schmidt medal in 1946 for her many contributions to marine research and Navy oceanography during the war.
In 1947, she returned to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, where she was highly involved in many of the early discussions organizing the Institution and acquiring its first ships. She served on the scientific staff as a planktonologist until 1963, when department structure was reorganized and she was named a Senior Scientist of the Biology Department, a position she held until her retirement in 1970.
Sears was named as Scientist Emeritus in 1978 and she was also a long-time Member of the Corporation, serving as Clerk of the Corporation from 1947 to 1973 and as Deputy Clerk from 1973 to 1975. She was named an Honorary Trustee and Honorary Member of the Institution in 1976.
Sears made her mark in marine science at a time when women were not allowed to go to sea. She edited the journals and books in which oceanographers published their results and by helping to establish the journals Deep-Sea Research (editor 1953 to 1974) and Progress in Oceanography. Her editorial work on “Oceanography: The Past” became a part of the Third International Congress on the History of Oceanography, held at Woods Hole in September 1980. Between 1962 and 1973 Sears compiled and edited the Institution's Annual Report and Summary of Investigations. She also compiled the Collected Reprints of the Institution from 1959 to 1975, and compiled the Oceanographic Index, 1971-1976.
Sears chaired and helped establish the First International Congress on Oceanography, held in 1959. She also served on the Joint Committee on Oceanography of the International Council of Scientific Unions from 1958 to 1960. She was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was a member of numerous other professional societies and organizations.
Beyond her roles in international marine science, Sears served the community and Town of Falmouth by serving on numerous organizations. She died in 1997.
- Article is partially excerpted from NWHM’s Exhibition “Partners in Winning the War: Women in World War II,” Annandale, Virginia, 2004.
- “Down to the Sea for Science – Mary Sears,” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, n.d., http://www.whoi.edu/75th/book/sears.html.
- PHOTO: Wood Holes Oceanographic Institute