Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

Ocean Life, Planet Health

Henry Bigelow

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Bigelow at the wheel of the schooner Grampus

Henry Bryant Bigelow

1879-1967

Bigelow at the wheel of the schooner Grampus

Henry Bigelow was a pioneering ocean researcher whose extensive investigations in the early part of the twentieth century were later recognized as the foundation of modern oceanography. His expeditions in the Gulf of Maine, where he collected water samples and data on the phytoplankton, fish and hydrography, made this region one of the most thoroughly studied bodies of water, for its size, in the world.

Bigelow's work stressed the interdependence of biology, chemistry and physical science in studying the ocean. His three book-length monographs are famous for their clarity and exact scientific writing, and Fishes of the Gulf of Maine is a useful handbook for today's scientists.

Bigelow's 1929 report to the National Academy of Sciences led to establishment of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1930, of which he was the founding director. In the report, Bigelow wrote of "our general ignorance of the inter-relationships in the very complex chain of events in the sea that govern the comparative success or failure of its inhabitants in the struggle for life. Nothing in the sea falls haphazard; if we cannot predict, it is because we do not know the cause, or how the cause works."

Henry Bryant Bigelow grew up in Boston, spent summers on Cape Cod and developed a life-long love of the outdoors and nature. He was brought up in a well-to-do family, attended Milton Academy and enjoyed several trips to Europe with his family. Although not an athlete, he enjoyed hunting, fishing and sailing. He entered Harvard in 1897, admittedly did not enjoy college life and made few friends; however, he excelled in natural history subjects and graduated cum laude in 1901.

While at Harvard, Bigelow made a most important alliance with Professor Alexander Agassiz who was known for his explorations in the Pacific Ocean. Although they did not know each other well, Bigelow asked Agassiz to take him on his next cruise. To his delight, Agassiz agreed, and in the winter of 1901, Bigelow served as assistant on an expedition to the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. Bigelow traveled by land and sea to many exotic places in the course of the trip: to Naples, Ceylon, Algiers, Batavia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo, returning to the States through San Francisco. Upon his return to Cambridge, he was assigned to study the medusae collected on the voyage; these furnished material for his doctoral research (1906). Three years later, he was again Professor Agassiz's assistant on the Albatross Expedition to the Eastern Tropical Pacific. A third trip with Agassiz took place in 1907, shortly after his marriage to Elizabeth Shattuck. She eagerly joined this voyage to the West Indies, and during their sixty years together, Elizabeth accompanied Henry on many of his research expeditions.

After joining the staff of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1905, Bigelow published papers on various biological subjects. The majority of these were on coelenterates (which includes the jellyfish, sea anemones and corals), and many publications were illustrated with Bigelow's own drawings and photographs. Bigelow joined the teaching faculty of Harvard in 1921 and became an internationally known expert on the coelenterates and on fishes, especially sharks and rays.

Bigelow received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1906 and served on the faculty for 62 years. Between 1901-1968, 110 papers were published with Bigelow as the major author. He was distinguished as having been on the staff of Harvard longer than any other person in the history of the University. In fact, in 1960, Bigelow joked to a member of the Harvard Board that he thought the University owed him a bottle of bourbon whiskey in appreciation of his service. A short while later he was surprised by a delivery, "with the compliments of the President and Fellows." His autobiography notes that "no one else has ever been presented with a bottle of whiskey by Harvard University."

The famous photograph of Bigelow at the wheel of the schooner Grampus was taken in 1912. It is notable for marking a second major phase of Bigelow's scientific career when he began studies of the Gulf of Maine. These voyages were jointly sponsored by the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Over twelve years, Bigelow studied this region extensively, mostly working alone, and published three monographs on the physical oceanography, plankton, and fishes, which, taken together, gave the most complete account of the oceanography of the Gulf of Maine and set a new standard for modern work in marine science.

From 1912 to 1928, 350 stations were occupied in the Gulf of Maine region where serial measurements of temperature (and often salinity) were obtained; 10,116 tow net hauls were made; one thousand drift bottles were set and so many recovered that he could establish the prevailing non-tidal current system of the Gulf and Georges Bank. As a result of these studies, Bigelow wrote, "it is generally conceded that, oceanographically, the Gulf of Maine is better known than is any other comparable area of the ocean..." Bigelow's findings are still referred to frequently in scientific discussions about the Gulf of Maine.

"We might call Bigelow one of the founders of the new oceanography, that is oceanography with an ecological aim, so that instead of the mere description of what there was in the sea, there should be an explanation of the inter-connections based on full knowledge and the applications of other branches of science,"

written by Michael Graham in Deep Sea Research, in April 1968.

In 1927 Bigelow began a long-term collaboration with William C. Schroeder, in publishing more than forty papers in ichthyology - mainly the sharks and batoid fishes (sawfishes, skates and rays). Together they published some 1100 pages in volumes of Fishes of the Western North Atlantic between 1948 - 1965.

In 1930 the Rockefeller Foundation gave $2.5 million to establish the oceanographic institution at Woods Hole and also paid for the construction of a 140 ft. ship to be used as a sea-going laboratory. At that time, Dr. Bigelow presented his case for the new science of oceanography - a departure from the fact-finding expeditions of the past. He stated, "Oceanography would die, but for the development of a new point of view - the idea that what is really interesting in sea science is the fitting of the facts together...the time is ripe for a systematic attempt to lift the veil that obscures any real understanding of the cycle of events that takes place in the sea. It is this new point of view that is responsible for our new oceanographic institution."

The July 1968 issue of Oceanus, published by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), was dedicated in memory of Henry Bigelow and contains tributes and stories about his life and research from friends and colleagues. Paul M. Fye, then WHOI Director, wrote:

In April 1927, the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor A. A. Michelson, appointed a committee with Frank R. Lillie as Chairman, to consider the share of the United States of America in a world-wide program of oceanographic research and report to the Academy. Subsequently, Dr. Bigelow was invited to make investigations and prepare a report. The report led the Academy to recommend the establishment of a well-equipped oceanographic institution on the east coast. The result was that our Institution was established almost full blown in the course of a year, with Dr. Bigelow as director.

The report to the Academy was also published in Science magazine in 1930 and contained Bigelow's argument that a new oceanographic institution was necessary based on a fundamentally new way of conducting science. His definition of oceanography was visionary:

"Oceanography has been aptly defined as the study of the world below the surface of the sea; it should include the contact zone between the sea and atmosphere. According to present-day acceptance it has to do with all the characteristics of the bottom and margins of the sea, of the sea water, and of the inhabitants of the latter. Thus widely combining geophysics, geochemistry and biology, it is inclusive, as is, of course, characteristic of any 'young' science: and modern oceanography is in its youth. But in this case it is not so much immaturity that is responsible for the fact that these several sub-sciences are still grouped together, but rather the realization that the physics, chemistry, and biology of the sea water are not only important per se, but that in most of the basic problems of the sea all three of these subdivisions have a part. And with every advance in our knowledge of the sea making this interdependence more and more apparent, it is not likely that we shall soon see any general abandonment of this concept of oceanography as a mother science, the branches of which, though necessarily attacked by different disciplines, are intertwined too closely to be torn apart. Every ocean biologist should, therefore, be grounded in the principles of geophysics and geochemistry; every chemical or physical oceanographer in some of the oceanic aspects of biology."

Before the outbreak of World War II, Bigelow directed the attention of the researchers at Woods Hole to the plankton-rich waters of Georges Bank. Aboard the Institution's research vessel Atlantis, Bigelow and others studied the biology and chemistry of this region. Bigelow's early surveys showed that Georges Bank had longer seasons of phytoplankton production than the open Gulf of Maine. The area was commercially important for its haddock fishery, so the scientists set out to find what conditions provided such rich breeding grounds.

For a man of the sea, it is interesting that Bigelow spent his leisure time hunting in the woods of Canada, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. "In 1909," he wrote, "we built a house in Concord, by the Sudbury River, and have lived there ever since, moving to Cohasset, Duxbury, or Mount Desert in the summer. Professional activities have been engrossing, but never enough so to prevent occasional fishing and shooting trips. Wild fowling and trout fishing are my most absorbing pastimes." His life story involves many accounts of his adventures traveling, literally around the world, visiting out of the way places and always involving an adventure of some sort. His wife accompanied him on many camping and hunting trips by canoe and on horseback. The family traveled extensively, and he wrote about visiting European countries and of climbing expeditions in the Canadian Rockies and Swiss Alps. Into his eighties, he continued to travel and visited rain forests, jungles, and cattle ranches; his curiosity and interest in nature lasted for his lifetime.

For the Harvard Class of 1901 50th reunion publication, Bigelow wrote: "On December 31, 1939, I retired as Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but served as President of the Trustees until August 10, 1950, when I was made Chairman of the Board. I continued as Professor of Zoology and Alexander Agassiz Professor at Harvard, and as Curator and Research Oceanographer in the Museum of Comparative Zoology until June 30, 1950, when I was retired as Professor Emeritus. I still serve on the faculty of the Museum. My hobbies continue as before, gardening, woods work, fishing, skiing and outdoor life in general." He was an active skier at age 85! At that age, he writes of recent projects - writing a key for the identification of all the families of living fishes, writing a history of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (1911-1961), and writing a general natural history of the living fishes of the world.

Bigelow received many honors and accolades during his lifetime: the Agassiz Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union, Johannes Schmidt Medal of Denmark, Monaco Medal of the Institute Oceanographique in Paris , Elliot Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, and honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale and the University of Oslo. He was the first recipient of the Henry Bryant Bigelow Medal for Oceanography, established in his honor in 1966 by the trustees of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In 1970, the US Department of Interior gave the name Bigelow Bight to the large open bay in the Gulf of Maine between Cape Ann and Cape Small. Today, a large central laboratory building on the campus of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution bears his name, as does the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, a marine research institution founded in 1974 and located in West Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

Bibliography

  • Bigelow, Henry B., Oceanography, its Scope, Problems and Economic Importance, Houghton Mifflin, 1931. "Memories of a Long and Active Life", The Cosmos Press, Cambridge,1964.
  • Graham, Michael, Deep Sea Research, Vol.15, No.2, April 1968, The Pergamon Press.
  • Harvard College Library Clipping Sheet (Boston Globe, Boston Herald).
  • Harvard University Gazette, Dec. 7, 1968.
  • Harvard College Class of 1901 25th Anniversary Report.
  • Harvard College Class of 1901 50th Anniversary Report.
  • Logan, Jennifer, "The Man Who Knew the Sea," Island Journal, Vol. IV, 1987.
  • Mills, Eric L., Biological Oceanography - An Early History, 1870-1960, Cornell University Press, 1989.
  • Oceanus, Vol.XIV, No.2, July 1968, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution