Ruth Dixon Turner, Ph.D.

Pioneering Marine Biologist

Drawing of Ruth Turner Ruth Dixon Turner died on Sunday, April 30. She held the Alexander Aggasiz 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/Radcliff 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, destroying piers, 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. Photo: Ruth Turner boards the DSRV Alvin 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. Photo: Dr. Turner collecting specimen from wood section 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 (May 4, 2000) from 4-8 PM at Long Funeral Home in Porter Square, Cambridge with services on Friday at 11 AM.

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.

-- George Buckley

George D. Buckley
Board of Directors Boston Sea Rovers;
Instuctor of Ocean Environments Harvard University Extension School;
Chairman of the Marine Ecology Project
Phone: 781-648-0129 // e-mail:
164 Renfrew St. Arlington, Mass. 02476

Where to send donations on Ruth's behalf for WHOI scholarships

Press Release

OBITUARY- 5/2/2000

RUTH DIXON TURNER, 85, of Cambridge died on April 30, 2000. A world- renowned biologist, she is survived by sisters Lina MacNeill of Wayland and Winnifred Garrity of Sudbury, and numerous nieces and nephews. A wake will be held at Long Funeral Home, 1979 Mass. Ave., Porter Square in Cambridge on May 4 from 4-8 p.m., with a memorial service to follow at noon on May 5 in Cambridge at Long Funeral Home.

Dr. Turner was a professor of biology, emeritus, in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, held the Alexander Agassiz Professorship at Harvard, was curator in malacology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) where she was groomed for the post by previous curator Dr. William Clench, acted as co-editor of the scientific journal "Johnsonia," and won international acclaim as a marine biologist and diver. Turner became one of Harvard's first tenured women professors in 1976.

She earned her bachelor's degree in education at Bridgewater State College, a masters degree in ornathology at Cornell University, and her PhD at Harvard University in biology, where she specialized in shipworm research. Dr. Turner wrote and published one book and over 200 scientific journal articles during her illustrious career.

She became the world's expert on teredos, wood-boring bivalve mollusks that wreak havoc on docks and boats, creating dangerous conditions for the maritime shipping industry. Due to Dr. Turner's research, scientists have since developed methods for controlling the damage shipworms do to shipwrecks, wooden vessels, piers, and docks throughout the world. The U.S. Navy consulted Turner for help in controlling the devastation of their fleet and dockage areas caused by shipworms, and the U.S. Office of Naval Research funded much of Turner's research for over thirty years. Additionally, the U.S. Navy dedicated their book titled "Biodegradation in the Sea," to this esteemed scientist.

Dr. Turner, working in collaboration with Dr. Robert Ballard of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, was able to explain why there was so little wood left on the wreckage of the once luxururious ocean liner, the Titanic, discovered after years buried at sea by Dr. Ballard. Dr. Turner was the first female scientist in the world to utilize the deep submergence research vehicle known as ALVIN and worked with Jacques Cousteau in oceanographic research. An avid scuba diver well into her 70's, Dr. Turner was one of the first female members of the prestigious Boston Sea Rovers and was honored with their Diver of the Year Award in 1972. She was named Woman Pioneer in Oceanography by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1996.

Turner was a long-time member and past president of the Boston Malacological Club and the American Malacological Union. Dr. Turner provided guidance and leadership to professional organizations studying seashells and other mollusks. She lectured throughout the world, taught at Harvard University while conducting on-going research, and mentored hundreds of students worldwide.

Remembrances in Dr. Ruth Turner's name in lieu of flowers are being accepted by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, where a special memorial fund has been created on behalf of Turner to help provide scholarships for aspiring marine biologists. (Mail donations to: WHOI, Fenno House, Mail Stop 40, Woods Hole, MA 02543.)


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Contact the author: Leslie Dawn

In lieu of flowers, please mail donations on Ruth's behalf to:
    Ruth Dixon Turner Scholarships
    Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
    Fenno House - Mail Stop 40
    Woods Hole, MA 02543
Thank you for your support

See also: 1996 Article by Andrea Early, Harvard Community Resource
Published by Science Network (Boston)