Mary Sears: advanced ocean intelligence [Women’s History Month]

“The untold story of Mary Sears and her team of eccentric scientists who pioneered the oceanographic intelligence that revolutionized naval warfare in the Pacific during World War II and was critical to America's victory over Japan.” — front book sleeve, Lethal Tides

If you're looking for a book to add to your spring/summer reading, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Catherine Musemeches Lethal Tides, Mary Sears, and the ocean explorers who helped win World War II. This blog post is not formatted as a book review; instead, I hope I can bring attention to parts of the story and link you to other resources that will interest you in learning more about Mary Sears' incredible accomplishments and leadership.

The book doesn't just focus on Sear's life! It includes the history of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the history of the Hydrographic Office, the background of WAVES, the importance of charts to the war effort, and more. There is also an excellent discussion of the history of women not allowed at sea – which included Mary Sears.

(*Sidebar – why does this tweet have to point out that her desk is “messy”? Would they have used the same wording about their other researchers’ desks? Just saying…)

For an overview, I highly recommend reading Deadly tides book Review published in Oceanographyand Sear's biography in this Smithsonian Magazine article Mary Sear's pioneering ocean research saved countless lives during World War II. The book's author, Catherine Musemeche, has given numerous interviews and participates in podcast recordings, from The Chris Voss Show Podcast to American Shoreline Podcast Network and the American Blue Economy Podcast (linked in tweet below).

“Sears was no longer at Woods Hole, where she had been sidelined by her male colleagues who sailed on Atlantis and collected her specimens while she stayed ashore. For the first time in her life, she was in charge.” – (Lethal Tides, p. 129)

There are several golden lines as I noted while reading the book – perhaps these highlights will pique your interest to delve into this excellent read, which again is broader than just the story of Mary Sears:

  • “Until 1930, American oceanography was largely a self-financed science, led by wealthy male adventurers who could afford to defray the costs of worldwide expeditions.” (*until the founding of WHOI and Scripps) (p. 50)
  • “…how would the US military catch up with the oceanographic intelligence it needed when the oceans had been surveyed for decades?” (page 94)
  • With regard to Dora Henry, America's leading barnacle expert for over half a century, “There were two strikes against her… One, she was a woman and two, she was a professor… She was thanked and informed that the Navy wasn't interested in her theory.” (p. 121)
  • “”The Navy went to war without knowing enough about the seas,” Sears later said. (p. 146)
  • “Tarawa demonstrated vividly and tragically that low tide levels could not be taken for granted where coral atolls ringed the shore. Tides mattered, and some days tides were everything.” (p. 153)

There are entire sections and chapters I read with great interest, such as:

  • At the beginning of Chapter 6, the development of the bathythermograph (BT) is discussed.
  • The entirety of Chapter 12 is a fascinating examination of the value of weather and tidal data in selecting the D-Day date.
  • Chapter 13 notes the importance of knowing and mapping the distribution of bottom sediments to predict underwater sound conditions and plan landing operations, as well as the challenges of bioluminescence in a region.

There is also a mention on page 59 of the book of Admiral George S. Bryan during his time as officer in charge of the Hydrographic Office and publication of charts. Admiral Bryan spoke to the American Geophysical Union in 1942 about the burden his office now had to respond to the ever-increasing demands to produce accurate charts without the personnel and funding available to match wartime demands. If there is an extant transcript of this talk, it would indeed make fascinating reading!

The nation found itself in a two-ocean war of global proportions, a war fought both above and deep below the ocean's surface, but there was still much about the seas that was unknown.” – (from Lethal Tides, p. 86, in a section discussing a 1943 oceanography meeting subcommittee)

Mary Sear's life has been celebrated in media such as Harvard Magazine. When Mary Sears passed away in September 1997, her obituary was published in several places, ranging from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to The New York Times. Her name continues to be associated with prizes and awards in marine science, such as The Oceanography Society's Mary Sears Medal and WHOI's Mary Sears Women Pioneers in Oceanography Award. The US Navy named an oceanographic research vessel in her honor, the USNS Mary Sears (T-AGS-65). We are so fortunate that Catherine Musemeche celebrates Mary Sears' life and significant contributions to our field—now it's our turn to highlight these details in our classrooms, our textbooks, and elsewhere.

If you enjoyed reading Deadly tidesyou might want to check out other books that Catherine Musemeche recommends in this one The Wall Street Journal article, Top Five: Books About Unsung American Women of World War II.

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