"How much is known about the Gulf of Maine?"
So, according to his memoirs, went the conversation that kicked Henry Bryant Bigelow '01, Ph.D. '06, S.D. '46, out of a rut and onto the Gulf of Maine, which he would transform from a scientific unknown to one of the most thoroughly studied large bodies of water in the world--and in doing so, set modern oceanography on an "interdisciplinary," "ecosystemic" course before either term existed. Bigelow developed a rigorous, integrative approach to oceanography that he eloquently propagated for decades. Along the way, he served what he reckoned to be the longest tenure in Harvard's history, working as a researcher, instructor, and professor of zoology from 1906 to 1962--for which he solicited and received, he recalled with typical humor in the memoirs, the only bottle of whiskey ever presented to anyone by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Considering what he accomplished, Bigelow's career began slowly. The son of a Boston banker, he preferred an outdoor life. His undergraduate days "left no impression," he wrote 65 years later, "beyond that I distinctly was not a social success, and made few friends, so I did not much enjoy my college life."
He did enjoy studying natural history, however, and in 1902 joined the first of several long research cruises he took with Alexander Agassiz, then director of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) and one of the world's leading oceanographers. On these cruises Bigelow found his calling, reveling in the fieldwork and making his name with a paper he published on the medusas of the Maldive Islands in 1909. In the meantime he married Elizabeth Shattuck Perkins, who would accompany him on many research excursions thereafter.
Yet Bigelow's excursions almost ended when Agassiz died in 1910. Without the boats and research funding Agassiz had attracted, Bigelow spent almost two years cataloging the MCZ's collections and wondering what to do. Then, late in 1911, Scottish oceanographer Sir John Murray visited Harvard and posed the stern question about the Gulf of Maine.
Over the next dozen years, working with a small schooner borrowed from the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Bigelow dipped, dredged, seined, and sounded all over those waters. He sailed tens of thousands of miles, spent hundreds of nights at sea, made more than 10,000 net hauls to sample sea life, and released more than 1,000 drift bottles containing notes asking the finder to mail him the location of discovery. When he was done, he possessed perhaps the most comprehensive, ecologically integrated picture of a large piece of ocean that anyone has ever commanded. He described that picture in three extraordinary monographs, on the Gulf's fishes, plankton, and physical oceanography. Seven decades after the publication of these lucid works, researchers are only adding to, rather than revising, the framework of knowledge they created.
In 1929, Bigelow wrote an essay in Science calling on oceanographers not simply to collect facts, but to "fit the facts together" in a way that would "lift the veil that...obscured...understanding of the marvelously complex...cycle of events that takes place within the sea." To this end, he proposed establishing an ecosystem-oriented oceanographic research institute on the East Coast. Two years later he became the first director of the new Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He headed WHOI for nine years, dropping in daily on researchers to help draw connections among their various investigations. He insisted that every researcher, "regardless of gastric constitution," go to sea at least once a year. Thus he inspired a generation of oceanographers with his observation-rich, integrative approach. In addition, the set of oceanographic problems he laid out in his 1931 Oceanography helped guide oceanographic investigations for several decades.
A natural leader, Bigelow seemed to energize anyone in his presence. He played as hard as he worked, hunting, fishing, hiking, canoeing, and climbing with Elizabeth and their four children all over the world. These adventures made him "the best-informed naturalist one could hope to go afield with," a colleague wrote, and expanded his intimidating arsenal of skills. A master of both boatsmanship and currents, for example, he advised the navy on winds and tides during World War II, and he was so expert an angler that he once got a salmon to rise to a burnt match.
Never fond of administrating, Bigelow left WHOI in 1939 at age 60 and spent the rest of his life teaching, researching, writing, and advising--and somehow finding yet more time to fish, and to take up skiing. He didn't go to sea much in those later years. As a man whose "one physical weakness," observed a colleague, "was that he was easily seasick," he'd suffered enough trips to the rail. Yet Bigelow's influence remains so great, and the framework of knowledge he laid out so comprehensive, that he still sails every time a research boat weighs anchor.