Allied victory in the Pacific depended on strategy, bravery and military might. It also depended on a brilliant marine scientist from Massachusetts. Her long-neglected story, virtually forgotten today, illustrates how the nascent field of oceanography came of age and refocused its efforts on the war, and how fledgling amphibious forces grew into premier assault teams. It’s no exaggeration to say that Sears—gathering data, making top-secret calculations on the eve of battle, leading her team of scientists and analysts, including the group she called the “enlisted girls”—helped the United States and its allies achieve victory in the Pacific.
The Mary Sears Women Pioneers in Oceanography Award is one of the highest honors presented by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The award recognizes long-term, life achievement and impact, with special consideration given to candidates who also have shown leadership through mentoring junior scientists, technicians, or students.
Mary Sears was the first recipient of the original Women Pioneers in Oceanography Award when it was initiated in 1994. Mary Sears passed away in September 1997 and in December 1999, through efforts of the Women’s Committee and in response to recommendations based on the Equity Climate Assessment Study of 1988, the Director and the Executive Committee of the Institution Board of Trustees renamed the Women Pioneers in Oceanography Award in honor of Mary Sears.
Her story is another example of why we must continue to do deep dives for the truths that still remain hidden. Journalists who do this work are also my hero’s.
My question is why it took so long to establish this award and this division of the Navy. Seems before Mary Sears there wasn’t much interest in the importance of the entire ocean. She proved why it is. Today new technologies are giving us a much deeper look at our planet and the discoveries still to be found and studied. And if only women had been allowed to use their brains along with their determination, how much better our world would be. A will finds the way. Her reward was in the work, besides having a Navy vessel named after her.
A marine biologist, the late Mary Sears received her doctoral degree in zoology from College in 1933 and went on to pursue a life long career in oceanography. She was one of the first staff members at WHOI and a guiding force in its development. She is widely credited with turning a new, obscure field into a prestigious international science, and was the founding and long-time editor of the journal Deep-Sea Research. She also helped to establish the journal Progress in Oceanography, and served as editor of a number of books considered milestones on documenting the history of marine science. As a principal organizer of the first International Oceanographic Congress at the United Nations, she forged many important links with marine scientists around the world. During World War II she organized and led the new Oceanographic Unit of the Navy Hydrographic Office, which provided the foundation for the current Naval Oceanographic Office.
A Navy WAVE during World War II, she provided intelligence reports predicting the presence of areas of the ocean where submarines could help escape enemy detection. She was sent to Washington, DC during World War II to work in the Hydrographic Office, working with Roger Revelle and others until June 1946. Revelle, former Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and founder of the University of California at San Diego, said in 1980 that “because the Federal Government has very little memory, it is generally forgotten that the first Oceanographer of the Navy in modern times was a short, rather shy and prim WAVE Lieutenant, j.g. …They 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, headed by an admiral with the proud title of Oceanographer of the Navy.”
Supplements to the Sailing Directions,” predicted the presence of thermoclines, or areas of rapid water temperature change, under which submarines could hide to escape enemy detection by surface sonar. She established a small oceanographic unit in the Navy’s Hydrographic Office and helped expand the role of applied oceanography within the Navy.
In October 2000 the US Navy named a new naval research vessel, its sixth Pathfinder-class oceanographic survey ship, the USNS Mary Sears. This was the first time in it’s 225 year history that the Navy named a research vessel for a woman.