Who was Ruth Turner?

[written by Bruno Costelini, Science without Borders intern at the Ernst Mayr Library]

Ruth Dixon Turner (1914-2000) was one of the foremost marine scientists of the 20th century. She taught at Harvard but carried out research all over the world, working with wood-boring mollusks, such as shipworms. In the late 1970s after the discovery of hydrothermal vents she was the first woman to dive in the deep submergence vehicle Alvin, which she kept on doing for the next couple of decades.

While going through her papers, housed at the Library, we came across the following transcript of an interview she gave in the spring of 1987 for an article in the MCZ Newsletter, which apparently was never published. If offers glimpses into her life and views on science, work ethics and being a woman professor.

Growing up in Melrose, MA, among nature, she remembers having books around the house:

We were up on the Melrose-Saugus line, which Is pretty country – well, it’s not anymore; since World War Two that whole section is just – it just used to be woods. I could walk all the way from our house to Saugus […]

So we were pretty busy as kids, but outdoors. And you knew all the, you knew most of the plants and stuff, you just – knew them somehow. But most of the stuff was in – you got started on botany and birds because that’s where the books were. […]

We had a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. In fact we had what’s known as the scholarly set, with all the – anyway, a very famous malacologist, and all of those – a really classic edition, the scholar’s edition, really a very fine edition. I don’t know how Dad happened to have it, but there were a lot of – not an enormous number, but a lot of books, there were always books and reading material around, although we didn’t have any money.

Curiously enough, after spending her early years immersed in the Britannica set, she went on to become a collaborator of the Encyclopedia, writing complete entries on her subjects of expertise. But her interest in Biology didn’t come so easily as one might expect:

I went through high school […] biology in high school was not particularly good or exciting […] the teacher didn’t – stimulate me at all.

So – when I got to Bridgewater [State College, where she graduated from in 1936], I ran into the biology teacher, who was stimulating, and who came from Cornell, so I went to Cornell, and so that was my train. And once I got into the field, and really saw what biology was all about, I made up my mind this was where I wanted to go.

From there she went on to work with mollusks, using her training in systematics to try and figure out why some species of shipworms (Teredinidae) choose to feed on certain types of wood instead of others, a problem that afflicts the naval and fisheries industry because of the damage to vessels and wooden structures. But the story of how she turned to malacology seems almost accidental:

I came here and volunteered when I was getting my Master’s degree, in the bird department with Jim Peters, and he, one day here I was poor as a churchmouse, asked me if I wanted to go out to lunch with him. So I went out to lunch with him and the waiter said, one check or two? And he says, two, and it was damn lucky I had enough money with me to pay mine, because I was paying my fare in from Melrose, and you know – so, that was the end of eating lunch up in the bird department, so I started coming over here and eating lunch with Dr. Clench in the mollusk department.

From that point on her career was quite successful. Backed by a longstanding contract with the Office of Naval Research she was able to spend decades working on the ecology of shipworms, gathering specimens on cruises and with the help of an extensive network of collaborators.

Another question that puzzled her was the existence of a whole different family of wood-boring mollusks, the Pholadidae, that had evolved in the deep sea, where very little to no wood was available. So in the late 1970s she was invited by Robert D. Ballard to make experiments diving on the DSV Alvin, being the first woman to do so.

Parallel to all this, she maintained her position at Harvard, where she was made full professor in 1976, having to struggle with a male dominated environment, but keeping her passion for teaching:

 My very first interview for a job teaching […] the principal who was interviewing me […] asked me which I thought was more important, methods or knowledge, and I looked at him straight in the face, brazen as brass, and said, Sir, if you know your subject, and really know it and are excited about it, and you like people, you don’t need any methods, they come naturally – and I didn’t get the job.

I wouldn’t leave Harvard, or and educational institution, for anything because I feel one really needs the stimulus of students, and I love teaching. […]

So here at Harvard, you’re – I don’t know, you’re – I don’t know, as a female, you’re sort of – although I made a full professorship, which is something, and I’m very grateful for that, and I think it’s helped some of the other girls, and I always, I always worked with the kids, any girl who wants to come and work around here, and I will not go out and women’s lib it, I’m not that kind of a person and I just won’t do it, and if they want to work hard and want to do their thing, I will help them along the way, but I don’t think, knowing men, and I’ve been to sea with them a lot, and I get along with them, and watched other people with them, and knowing men I think reasonably well, I think letting them know you’re a woman all the time has absolutely the opposite effect of what you want.

Though she could have retired much sooner, Ruth Turner continued working until the last decade of her life, actively lecturing and advising at Harvard, but also diving and publishing original research with her peers and along the way impressing everyone she met and worked with, being named in 1996 Woman Pioneer in Oceanography by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.