Mary Sears, Winsor, and World War II

By Audrey Wang

Back in November, the Winsor community commemorated Winsor alumna and World War II Navy commander Mary Sears in honor of Veteran’s Day. During the weekly all-school assembly, alumna Lieutenant Junior Grade Giovanna De Vito ’16 introduced Dr. Catherine Musemeche, the author of Lethal Tides: Mary Sears and the Marine Biologists Who Helped Win WWII, via video. Then, during her presentation, Dr. Musemeche described the life of Mary Sears, addressing both her contributions to the U.S. Navy during WWII and her legacy as a woman in STEM. 

Mary Sears (1905–97) was an oceanographer and marine biologist. Born in Wayland, Massachusetts, Sears graduated from the Winsor School in 1923 and attended Radcliffe College, receiving an undergraduate degree, master’s degree, and Ph.D. in zoology. In 1930, she helped found the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, an action that broke barriers in a male-dominated field.

Sears made significant contributions to the United States Navy through her oceanographic research. She was an oceanographer in the U.S. Navy Reserve during and directly after World War II, where she conducted research on sea drift to help the Navy recover crew and items after shipwrecks and plane crashes. After an amphibious assault in 1943 left Marines vulnerable to attack, the U.S. Navy began to rely more heavily on its oceanographers to plan amphibious landings. Sears and her oceanographic team prepared reports for potential landing areas, raising concerns over the hazards of landing in some locations and preventing the field commanders from making rash decisions. Thus, Sears was highly trusted and was often the only oceanographer asked to produce reports on tides when the Navy was planning invasions. In 1945, she was promoted to lieutenant commander of the Navy’s Oceanographic Division. 

In recognition of her career in marine research, Sears received the Johannes Schmidt Medal from the Danish Rask-Orsted Foundation in 1945. After she retired as a Navy commander in 1963, she returned to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where she was named a Senior Scientist until 1970 and a Scientist Emeritus in 1978. Her work helped to establish oceanography as a discipline of its own, and her contributions to the Navy’s understanding of the ocean helped to support the military’s operations and enhance national security. 

In addition to her scientific contributions, Sears was notable for furthering the development of women in the sciences, and received many honors and awards for her work throughout her career. The Oceanography Society now awards the Mary Sears Medal every two years in her honor. Sears is a true role model for women in STEM, and her legacy lives on, as reflected in the Winsor community. 

Upper School history teacher and Director of Community & Inclusion Mr. Braxton said, “Sears is an example of all the unknown trailblazers we’ve heard about. I am so glad that [we] all had a chance to learn about Ms. Sears. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to achieve what she did as the ‘only’ and ‘first’ woman. We should never forget the ‘firsts’ who came before us because they paved the way and opened the door at a time everyone else said it was impossible. Mary Sears made the impossible possible.” Similarly, Alyssa Quarles ’24 commented, “Mary Sears is an inspiration for what I can accomplish with my Winsor education after I graduate.”

As students walk through the halls of the academic building, let us remember that Mary Sears stood on the same ground nearly 100 years ago. We can all make a difference, just like she did.