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Financial resources that flowed to American science as a result of Sputnik, the scientific race with the Soviets, and the Cold War trickled down (or up) to biological oceanography. It should be noted that NSF made a conscious decision to support biological oceanography in the 1950s because it foresaw that biological oceanography was unlikely to receive support elsewhere, including the Office of Naval Research. These new resources drove the increase in basic, NSF-supported, research during this period. Responding to the increased supply of resources by recruiting young scientists in large numbers, biological oceanography became a discipline of its own and settled into a steady rate of progress and expansion. In this paper we identify nine landmark achievements of biological oceanography of the past 50 years and discuss who made them, their sequelae, and NSF's role in making them possible.


This review got its start in March 1998 at an NSF-sponsored retreat where a group of about 50 people pondered the future of biological oceanography; the exercise was called OEUVRE (Ocean Ecology: Understanding and Vision for Research). In considering what's exciting for the future of biological oceanography, there was a thorough and wide-ranging discussion of achievements of the past two or three decades. We have used the OEUVRE report liberally; its results are presented in the paper by Peter Jumars later in this volume.

Next we queried about 150 practicing biological oceanographers on their opinions of the landmark achievements of the past 50 years. Almost everyone responded to our query, and it was fascinating to see this thoughtful self-evaluation of our discipline. Organizing and collating the many replies was educational, but this informal survey did not lend itself to quantitative analysis. We also looked at citation indices (McIntosh, 1989; Parsons and Seki, 1995) but did not use this information because biological oceanography was not a specific category. In the end we made a subjective selection which was, for the most part, consistent with the suggestions provided by the community. We thank the respondents and acknowledge how much we learned from their replies, but we absolve them from responsibility for the following.

Because neither of the authors has formal training as a historian, we are in every sense amateurs at writing history. Our strongest, or perhaps weakest, characteristic is a passionate interest in biological oceanography and its history. Another important weakness is that we are practicing biological oceanographers. It is unrealistic to expect an objective history of baseball from players who are in the middle of a playoff game. Our paper is very subjective—interesting and informative, we hope, but not necessarily objective.

Selecting achievements to include was not difficult; the agonizing aspect was what to leave out. In biology there are many kinds of achievements. In this short paper we do not do justice to the diversity of biological oceanography. Also, as any NSF program manager in biological oceanography will tell you, there is no tidy framework for organizing the different parts of biological oceanography. Our list is therefore eclectic as well as subjective.


We begin with two landmark achievements that more or less fell into the laps of biological oceanographers.

Chemosynthetic Hydrothermal Vent Communities (Plate 1)

This is an easy landmark to start with because it has all the dramatic elements of discovery. We may no longer set out on voyages of discovery, but in the past 50 years the pace of biological discovery has been awesome. In 1976, when geologists discovered the hydrothermal vents, biological oceanography received a much-appreciated jolt of intellectual stimulation (Corliss et al., 1979). The existence of a new kind of ecosystem with dramatic new biochemical adaptation fueled the imagination of everyone. The names associated with this pioneering work on chemosynthesis are a cross section of the gentry of biological oceanography. Cavenaugh, Childress, Grassle, Jannasch, Karl, Lutz, and Somero were early leaders in this work, but the list soon expanded to include several dozen individuals (see references below). From this work we learned how organisms adapt biochemically to temperature extremes and lack of oxygen, a line of investigation that has led to the discovery of active microbes deep in the Earth. This work also provides a rational organizing paradigm for the search for life on other celestial bodies.

What is amazing about the discovery of chemosynthetic ecosystems is that, once discovered, they have turned up everywhere in the ocean: on the continental shelves and slopes, in the deep sea, and at plate margins and ridge crests (Van Dover, 1990, 1998, 1999). They are hot vents or cold seeps; their reducing power comes from hydrogen sulfide or methane. Chemosynthetic ecosystems even exist on whale carcasses (Smith et al., 1989).

The mystery is how we overlooked these ubiquitous ocean ecosystems for so long, and we wonder what other surprises the ocean holds.

NSF's Biological Oceanography Program has been the lead agency in support of this work, and Alvin support by NSF made rapid progress possible. The disco, cry, response by scientists, and response by NSF provide a model of science at its best.

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