BOOK REVIEW – Lethal Tides: Mary Sears and the Marine Scientists Who Helped Win World War II

Catherine Musemeche, Lethal Tides: Mary Sears and the Marine Scientists Who Helped Win World War II. New York: Harper Collins, 2022. 394 pp.

Review by Dr. Gary Weir, PhD
Editor Emeritus, International Journal of Naval History

On Mary Sears’ eightieth birthday one of the grandfathers of American oceanography, Scripps’ director Roger Revelle, described her as a “force of nature.” In my own research as an historian of American oceanography I once discovered a letter written by the Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Columbus Iselin, that referred to her using the male personal pronoun, “he.” He never intended an insult. It accidentally betrayed his complete comfort with her as an influential colleague on par with his male associates. He simply failed to acknowledge any distinction between Mary Sears and the eminent male scientists who regularly populated Woods Hole. It became obvious to me very early in my research that she needed a history that would place her amazing career in perspective at a number of levels. Catherine Musemeche has provided that much needed treatment.

In a well-written and absorbing narrative, the author treats Mary Sears as a scientist whose career speaks to the twenty-first century in many significant ways. As a woman she had a difficult time claiming her right to practice as a scientist due to professional gender prejudice and the extraordinary superstition that kept women from taking their research to sea on board ship. With rare exceptions she had her research efforts circumscribed by these limits in a way that might have driven an ordinary marine biologist out of the field. Instead, she found exceptions to the rule, did extensive research in South American waters, collaborated with European colleagues after World War Two, and went on to set the standard for oceanographic research by founding and guiding some of the most important scientific journals in the field of oceanography, notably Deep-Sea Research. Still, she had to express a small measure of jealousy when, after the war, Elizabeth Bunce of Woods Hole finally broke the gender barrier as a scientific crew member on board WHOI’s R/V Atlantis and then as a chief scientist at sea. Unlike Bunce, whose outspoken style gave her an advantage, Sears exercised her quiet drive and determination ashore. A closer comparative study of their respective careers would certainly further illuminate the nature of the gender barriers in professional oceanographic circles.

Returning from a research expedition to Peru as the war started in December 1941, Sears joined the U.S. Navy as a WAVE and made a considerable impression on the course of the conflict as a leader in the Hydrographic Office, becoming the driving force behind the oceanographic component of the very important JANIS series of reports. These Joint Army and Navy Intelligence Surveys provided essential environmental intelligence in support of the amphibious actions in the Pacific, like Tarawa and Iwo Jima, and those conducted on D-Day in Europe. 

Ms. Musemeche’s broad treatment of Mary Sears also places her main character in the company of an astonishing group of talented women at the Hydrographic Office, some of whom, like multi-lingual librarian Mary Catherine Grier, exploited little known or under-appreciated sources to supply information that made some of the Pacific landings possible with minimal casualties. The excellence and timeliness of their work quickly overcame initial doubts within the Navy as to their abilities. In the end their work, and that of Sears in particular, came to the notice of Admiral Nimitz and elicited unusual praise.

While unfairly relegated to the shore, Sears became an important part of the Woods Hole scientific scene. She became a senior and respected member of that scientific community in addition to rising to the rank of Commander in the postwar naval reserve. She served as a member of the Oceanographic Institution’s corporation for many years and with the journal Deep Sea Research, became an arbiter of quality in professional publication.

In a way one might expect from a semi-biographical treatment, this study provides the reader with personal information about its primary subject. Mary Sears emerged from a difficult childhood in New England to attend Radcliffe College and discover marine biology through the intersession of a truly eminent mentor, Henry Bryant Bigelow of Harvard and the first director of WHOI.

The value of this author’s treatment of Mary Sears rests with her emphasis on Sears’ personal determination, her devotion to science and country, and the way her experiences illustrate the hard road that many women had to travel if they wanted a career in science. In this study the section on the wartime Hydrographic Office emerges as particularly important. Here we see Mary Sears in context with her impressive colleagues. As a group they realized the potential in the JANIS reports before many others and the need to make them as deeply informative as possible. Human lives hung in the balance and Mary Sears knew that their science might permit many servicemen to return home after the hell that was Tarawa or Iwo Jima.

As you read this work, in your mind’s eye you will see Sears’ crew in the stacks at the Library of Congress, reviewing many prewar Japanese scientific publications and extracting information that might save lives. Then you will see them leave the library and wait for the city bus that would take them back to the Hydrographic Office facilities in Suitland, Maryland. It all appears hopelessly humble but proved terribly significant. Mary Sears joined the company of Maurice Ewing, John Lamar Worzel, Allyn Vine, Roger Revelle and many others who brought oceanography to the wartime Navy in a very practical way as an operational asset.

This reviewer very strongly recommends this treatment of Mary Sears. It offers an absorbing and significant story. It also suggests to historians of the female experience in American science other names from the wartime Hydrographic Office that deserve similar attention. These women made significant and creative contributions to the war effort that helped win the war and paved the way for a more complete postwar understanding of the ocean.

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 

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