Obituary, Ruth Dixon Turner

rosenberg at acnatsci.org rosenberg at acnatsci.org
Wed May 3 10:29:10 EST 2000


[The following obituary was written by George Buckley.]

Ruth Dixon Turner died on Sunday, April 30. She held the Alexander Agassiz
Professorship at Harvard University and was a Curator of Malacology in the
University's Museum of Comparative Zoology where she also served as
co-editor of the scientific journal "Johnsonia" .  She graduated from
Bridgewater State College, earned a Masters degree at Cornell University
and a PhD at Harvard/Radcliffe under the direction of Dr. William J. Clench
who brought her to Harvard from the Clapp Labs in Duxbury.

Turner who had begun her scientific and teaching career in a one room
schoolhouse  in Vermont went on to become the world's expert on Teredos,
bivalved mollusks called shipworms.  These marine borers cause widespread
destruction by eating wood in the ocean environment, destroyingpiers, docks
and wooden boats.  She became known affectionately as "Lady Wormwood" for
her work in this field.  It was she that explained why there was little
wood left on the sunken liner Titanic when it was discovered by fellow
scientist Robert  Ballard.

During her career which spanned some five decades Dr. Turner kept
laboratories in La Parguera in cooperation with the  University of Puerto
Rico, Northeastern University's Marine Sciences Institute at Nahant, the
Marine biological Laboratory at Woods Hole and at Harvard.  Her work led to
collaboration with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization,
U.S. Navy Office of Oceanography which funded much of her research and the
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where she became the first woman
scientist to utilize the Deep Submergence Research Vehicle  ALVIN to study
the deep sea.

Over some two decades she participated  in several dozen oceanographic
expeditions.  The Oceanographic Institution later named Turner a "Women
Pioneer in Oceanography".  She received many other honors including a
number of honorary degrees.  The venerable Boston Sea Rovers, an ocean
education group  of which she became an esteemed member named her " Diver
of the Year" and in recognition of her accomplishments the U.S. Navy
dedicated their  book on "Biodegradation in the Sea" to Professor Turner.
Other book dedications noted that she was a "Biologist par Excellence" and
quoted her oft repeated motto "know your animals".  Dr. Turner's last major
project was as a member of the scientific team that investigated the wreck
of the "Central America"- a  sunken steamer that contained millions in
lost gold.  It has been called the most scientifically studied shipwreck
ever by a Federal judge.

A past President and beloved member of the Boston Malacological  Club and
the American Malacological Union,  Dr.Turner  provided leadership to these
organizations and guidance to their members who study seashells and other
mollusks.  She was a Director of the Marine Ecology Project and a
consultant to many organizations including the National Geographic Society
and its programs on deep sea vent systems.  Lecturing widely, she shared
her knowledge and love of the sea and its life.  A dedicated teacher and
skilled dissectionist and illustrator, Turner was a mentor to hundreds of
students around the world.  She trained people, opened doors for them and
watched proudly as they started out on their own careers.

Dr. Turner leaves her sisters Winifred Garrity and Lina MacNeil.  She is
predeceased by her parents and her brothers Henry and Arthur and sisters
Jessie, Mary and Frances.  Contributions are being accepted to a Memorial
Fund that has been established in her name at the Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution.  A wake will be held on Thursday from  4-8 PM at  Long Funeral
Home in Porter Square, Cambridge with services on Friday at 11 AM.

[George adds the following personal comments :]

As a a teenager I began working  for Ruth Turner and Bill Clench  in the
Mollusk Dept. at Harvard University's  Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Being the person with a car I became the "designated driver" so to say and
ended up being in charge of field expeditions in the local area  which led
to many enjoyable afternoons and very early morning '"Minus tides" - the
better to collect marine specimens as well as leading to muddy feet and a
very messy car as all sorts of marine fauna and flora were brought back to
Harvard.   Ruth provided sage council on my winning high school science
fair projects on "Radula the teeth of snails" and was duly proud of my
achievements.   The job grew in importance as I had the prime responsibilty
on many occaisons  of  getting Ruth  " to the sub on time" at Woods Hole.
As  I  entered college the collecting went further afield with trips to the
Everglades, the Altamaha River and Puerto Rico.  Ruth was always there to
provide guidance, support, training in dissections whatever was needed.   I
particularly enjoyed going to conferences and seminars with Ruth and
observing the great good will shown towards her.   She truly loved what she
did  and greatly enjoyed interacting with people and people loved her.   I
taught a course  on Ocean Environments with her for many years at the
Harvard University Extension School and even after she retired and I kept
teaching the course she would accompany us on our  field trips  - "Cape Cod
Expeditions"  as they are known-well into her eighties much to the benefit
and enjoyment of my students.  Ruth will be missed by legions of students.
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