Photo by ERROR 420 📷 on Unsplash

What’s behind a name? Once you learn, it might be time to rename.

500 Women Scientists Philly Pod


Located on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is one of the top organizations across the globe recognized for excellence in ocean exploration, research, and education. One of the streets that winds through the WHOI campus was named Maury Lane in honor of Matthew Fontaine Maury, author of the first comprehensive book on oceanography published in 1855, titled The Physical Geography of the Sea. He is referred to in introductory oceanography textbooks as the Father of Modern Oceanography for being the first to systematically collect and compare data such as temperature and ocean current information on a global scale. In fact, he is credited with the very first use of the word “oceanography”.

Fast-forward to March 2021, when the Falmouth Planning Board votes to remove the name Maury Lane and rename the street Marie Tharp Lane (WHOI Press Release). Certainly, Marie Tharp is worthy of having her name on the WHOI campus, as her cartographic work from data collected in the Atlantic Ocean led to the first scientific map of the ocean floor. Her maps of shapes and features of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge reopened the discussions on the hypothesis of continental drift and provided evidence for the theory of plate tectonics (but in the 1950’s, she was not credited for her work as her explanations were called “girl talk” — instead, credit was given to Bruce Heezen, who she worked for at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory — see blog post from Columbia University, No Longer Just ‘Girl Talk’). The biography Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor by Hali Felt provides even more justification for why Marie Tharp deserves more recognition than a street name.

But there’s more to this story — it’s not just about giving Marie Tharp the recognition she is due, but coming to terms with the full life and identity of Matthew Fontaine Maury. During the Civil War, Maury resigned from the U.S. Navy and joined the Confederate Navy. He was very clear and public about his support for slavery, and in the 1830’s he wrote “a series of influential articles advocating for assertive American military policy rooted in his proslavery beliefs” (see Maury for Modern Times: Navigating a Racist Legacy in Ocean Science in Oceanography). On July 2, 2020, Maury’s statue in Richmond, Virginia, was torn down (ABC 8 News). WHOI stated in their press release that the reason to pursue the name change aligned with “the growing support to rename locations named after Confederate officers and leaders. Acknowledging Tharp’s contributions better represents the vision and mission of WHOI as a leader in ocean discovery, exploration, and education.”

And Matthew Fountain Maury is not the only person that science needs to evaluate how they honor and recognize his scientific contributions. The Founding Father of American Birding that has advanced our knowledge of sea birds, John James Audubon, is another figure that has racist writings and actions that need to be addressed in ornithology and conservation. The article linked in the tweet below summarizes the challenge, that “the birding community and organizations that bear his name must grapple with this racist legacy to create a more just, inclusive world.”

And then there’s John Wesley Powell, celebrated in the literature for his explorations along the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in the 1860s. Do we continue to honor his “ unswaying advocacy for land and water management in the West that would prove to be one of his most remarkable legacies” (see EOS article) without even acknowledging his anthropologic research that presupposed the racial inferiority of Native Americans (see Scientific American article).

So we can struggle with what to do with Audubon and Powell — or, we can move forward and take action like the ocean sciences has done with Maury.

For example, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) took action and recently removed the name Abraham Flexner from its Award for Excellence in Medical Education, as Flexner’s work “contained racist and sexist ideas, and his work contributed to the closure of five out of seven historically Black medical schools.” The name of statistician Ronald Aylmer Fisher was removed from a lectureship and a commemorative stained-glass window at Cambridge University following a student petition that objected to Fisher’s “endorsements of colonialism, white supremacy and eugenics.” Back in 2017, the American Urogynecologic Society (AUGS) retired the J. Marion Sims Lectureship, as this “father of modern gynecology” performed “multiple procedures without anesthesia (which was not universally accepted at the time), and were slaves in the American south.”

In STEMM, we must reflect on the names and histories we celebrate in our texts, our courses, and on our awards and recognitions. We must acknowledge the polarization and pain it causes to continue to honor those that have dishonored individuals and communities in the past and those that continue to do so in the present. Perhaps we can finally honor those that have waited much too long to be recognized for their significant contributions to our fields, such as oceanographic cartographer Marie Tharp.

To learn more about Marie Tharp’s work and to see some of her early seafloor profiles, view this ArcGIS StoryMap on Marie Tharp’s Seafloor.

Written by Dr. Laura Guertin, Penn State Brandywine



500 Women Scientists Philly Pod

The Philly Pod of 500 Women Scientists is a grassroots organization founded in February of 2017 with a vision to make science more open and inclusive to all.