Racist ocean science pioneer, once honored, is now rejected by scientific community

Matthew Fontaine Maury simply couldn’t give up the fight for slavery. In 1861, the pioneering ocean researcher and former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory joined many others from his rebellious home state of Virginia in the Confederate navy, battling then-President Abraham Lincoln’s Union. Sent to the United Kingdom, he developed mines and bought warships. And after the Confederacy lost the war in 1865, Maury remained abroad, seeking to create a “New Virginia” in Mexico, where former Confederates could continue to enslave people.

Despite Maury’s racism and avid support for slavery, he remained an honored figure in U.S. oceanography. The U.S. Navy has put his name on a research building, a library, and at least six vessels. His bust welcomed visitors to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). His statue looked over Virginia’s capital, Richmond, and his name was on lakes, roads, and leafy university campuses—and even programs designed to advance scientists from minority backgrounds.

Now, in the wake of protests against statues and other recognition of Confederate leaders, institutions are moving to stop publicly honoring Maury. Last week, a federal commission charged with renaming military assets that honor Confederates visited the U.S. Naval Academy, where campus leaders and members of Congress have called for the retitling of Maury Hall, a research building. The visit comes in the wake of decisions by numerous governments and institutions to remove Maury’s name or likeness from their grounds. “It’s all long due,” says Rick Murray, deputy director of WHOI, which this year renamed “Maury Lane” after Marie Tharp, an oceanographer famed for mapping the Atlantic Ocean sea floor.

Maury was a controversial figure even in his own time. Many academics reviled him because of his influential books, which promoted often inaccurate ideas about ocean circulation. “Maury was really a popularizer,” says Penelope Hardy, a science historian at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, and a graduate of the Naval Academy. “That was one thing serious scientists held against him.”

After a leg injury derailed a life at sea, Maury became head of the Naval Observatory, where he coordinated the charts and instruments used by U.S. forces. He sought to wean them off dependence on U.K. maps, enlisting merchant ships and whalers to collect and share measurements of wind and currents, which he turned into state-of-the-art maps and visualizations. “He was instrumental in turning the Navy toward formal training and science,” says Helen Rozwadowski, a science historian at the University of Connecticut, Avery Point.

In many ways, Maury was an early big data scientist. One notable accomplishment was helping persuade many U.S. allies to gather, standardize, and save ocean and weather measurements taken by ships. Now, those records tell some of the earliest stories about climate change, recording a world before fossil fuel emissions took hold.

Textbooks long described Maury as the first true oceanographer—with little account of his pro-slavery actions. That was a grave oversight, Rozwadowski says, because “his science was intimately tied to his racism and his beliefs in slavery.” Although he did not own enslaved people, many of Maury’s research initiatives were aimed at finding ways to expand U.S. commerce, and especially slavery, beyond the United States, Hardy and Rozwadowski wrote in an influential commentary published last year in Oceanography. He pushed for military explorations of South and Central America, for example, that were designed in part to probe their openness to slavery. “He was a Southern nationalist all the time,” says John Grady, a retired journalist who wrote a 2014 biography of Maury.

During the Civil War, Confederate leaders sent Maury to the United Kingdom, where he used his prominence to urge U.K. support for the rebels. He tinkered with electrically actuated floating mines and bought ships for the Confederate navy; one, the CSS Georgia, had a long run raiding Union merchants. He also corresponded with French shipyards on the design of Confederate ironclads. “He was sending as much data as he could back across the ocean,” Grady says.

After the war ended, Maury appeared to become almost delusional, Rozwadowski says. “Some of his Southern compatriots had a hard time convincing him it was over.” Eventually, Maury returned to the United States, serving at the Virginia Military Institute until his death in 1873. Later, Maury’s scientific prominence made him “superuseful” to those wanting to downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War and recast it as a noble Lost Cause, says Duncan Agnew, a marine seismologist and historian at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Maury also became “a bit of an icon” for the U.S. Navy, Agnew says. It is now one of the last institutions to operate facilities bearing his name, including a library in Mississippi and an oceanographic vessel launched in 2016. The renaming commission’s report is due in October 2022, and those names seem likely to change, Hardy says, if only because “celebrating traitors seems inappropriate” in places used “for training future naval officers.”

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