For Women’s History Month, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency salutes legendary oceanographer Mary Sears’ pioneering career.
Distinguished Naval Career
During World War II, Massachusetts native and trailblazer Mary Sears left a job she loved as a research assistant at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to answer her country’s call to duty in 1943. As a Navy lieutenant in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, she was appointed head of the Navy Hydrographic Office’s new Oceanographic Unit, which was created in 1943. This marked the beginning of military efforts to consolidate oceanographic programs, according to her WHOI biography. She worked with Roger Revelle and others until June 1946.
During the war years, Sears provided intelligence reports predicting the presence of areas of the ocean where submarines could help escape enemy detection. By 1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff expanded Sears’ responsibility to include management of more than 400 personnel, 100 more than typical for a naval destroyer. Her unit was charged with aiding the Navy in strategic maneuvers through providing analysis of tides, surf heights, and other oceanic metrics to give the Navy a strategic advantage over the nation’s adversaries.
Sears’ research while in the WAVES proved critical to the survivability of U.S. Navy submarines during the war. Her intelligence reports, “Submarine Supplements to the Sailing Directions,” predicted the presence of thermoclines—areas of rapid water temperature change—under which a submarine could hide to escape enemy detection by surface sonar.
Following the war, the Navy Hydrographic Office formally established a Division of Oceanography and Sears was appointed its first officer-in-charge.
Like many well brought-up women of her generation, Sears was thought to be quiet, studious and somewhat formal. Those attributes, however, belied her dedication and devotion to oceanography and her innovative spirit.
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.’”
After the war Mary spent a year in Copenhagen, where she held a Rask-Orsted Foundation grant and 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, transferred to the Naval Reserve and retired as a commander in 1963. Woods Hole designated her a Senior Scientist in its biology department, from which she retired in 1970.
In October 2000 the U.S. Navy named a new naval research vessel, its sixth Pathfinder-class oceanographic survey ship, the USNS Mary Sears. This was the first time in its 225-year history that the Navy named a research vessel for a woman, according to her WHOI biography.
Mary Sears (T-AGS-65) was laid down on July 28, 1999 at Moss Point, Mississippi, by Halter Marine, Inc.; launched on Oct. 19, 2000; sponsored by Mrs. Alice M. Rivlin, Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve; and placed in service with the Military Sealift Command Dec. 17, 2001, according to Naval History and Heritage Command.
Legendary Oceanographer and Visionary
A marine biologist, Mary Sears received her doctoral degree in zoology from Radcliffe College in 1933 and went on to pursue a lifelong 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.
Sears 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 graduate student she worked at Harvard University with Dr. Henry Bigelow, a founder and the first Director of WHOI. She began working summers at WHOI as a planktonologist in 1932, and was appointed as a planktonologist on a year-round basis in 1940. She also served as a research assistant at Harvard from 1933 to 1949, as a tutor at Radcliffe from 1934 to 1940, and as an instructor at Wellesley College from 1938 to 1943.
In 1941 she served at Pisco Bay in Peru as Grant and Faculty Fellow for Wellesley College’s Committee on Inter-American Cultural and Artistic Relations. Sears chaired and helped to establish the First International Congress on Oceanography, held at the United Nations in New York in 1959, where she made many important contacts with marine scientists from around the world. She also served on the Joint Committee on Oceanography of the International Council of Scientific Unions from 1958 to 1960.
On the occasion of her 80th birthday in 1985, Deep-Sea Research dedicated an issue to Mary Sears, noting that she “has probably played a greater role in the advancement of oceanographic studies than any other woman.”
As a member of nine scientific and honorary societies and long-time member of the governing board of WHOI, she was very influential in the development of WHOI, provided leadership across many oceanographic disciplines and mentored generations of young scientists.
She was a Scientist Emeritus at WHOI at the time of her death in September 1997.
Mary Sears Continues to Inspire
NGA continues legendary oceanographer Mary Sears’ pioneering accomplishments. The agency’s bathymetrists evaluate and extract hydrographic and bathymetric data to support safety in maritime navigation. To meet customer requirements, bathymetrists also create geospatial displays and textual reports of intelligence information. NGA Bathymetric Contour Charts play a vital role in underwater navigation and enable Navy submarines to support the nation’s interests around the world. These and other maritime safety efforts build on the foundation Mary Sears helped establish.
Compiled from the following sources:
-- Women who put GEOINT on the map by NGA’s Office of Corporate Communications [Updated March 2019]
-- About Mary Sears from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution