The Father of Oceanography

Science Fest – Sir John Murray: The Father of Oceanography



Professor Nick Owens, Director, Scottish Association for Marine Science – Short Film (All Ages)

Professor Nick Owens presents this short film about Sir John Murray (1814-1941), the founder of SAMS, the scientist responsible for bringing the original Challenger Expedition to the attention of the world, and the man who first coined the term ‘Oceanographer’.

Below, Professor Nick Owens describes how Sir John Murray influenced his career and how this turned into a lifelong interest in the man and his work.

‘The path to my involvement in the Sir John Murray film starts in 1984 when I was successful in obtaining a Royal Society Sir John Murray travelling studentship.  Back in those days there were many ‘named’ small grant schemes administered by the Royal Society, based on legacies from prominent scientists: they largely have now been amalgamated into larger, easier to administer schemes. But back in 1984 I was really fortunate to be awarded the John Murray studentship to allow me to spend 8 months at the Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO), University of Rhode Island, USA, to work with the world-renowned marine microbiologist John Sieburth.

Knowing that I would be giving seminars as part of the studentship, I thought I should do some homework on John Murray, whose legacy was funding my privileged trip. This was the beginning of nearly an entire career of interest in John Murray, his life and works, and the history of oceanography more generally. It was this early research that introduced me primarily to John Murray’s role in the Challenger expedition but also his role in the development of the Scotland’s and the UK’s contribution to the young science of oceanography.

Fate definitely played a part in this interest because the first thing I spotted in the library, in pride of place in the entrance of the GSO, was a full-set of the Challenger reports – the first I was to set my eyes on and since then subsequently have gone on to admire and enjoy.

Following that early introduction, I continued to do research into John Murray’s life and work, which I continue still to do.  I was immensely privileged to meet Lady Winifred Murray, the wife of Sir Anthony Murray, a grandson of John Murray, and subsequently other members of the direct and extended families, who were all very generous with their time and who shared various items connected with Sir John.

I have done various field trips over the years, given lectures at various venues, including one in Plymouth where there was one of the biggest gatherings of Murrays and other relations for many years, according to Sir Anthony.

My story continues today and is nicely ‘circular’ I think. Because, as set out in the film, following the Challenger expedition, John Murray set up a marine laboratory, first in Edinburgh, then Millport and then subsequently Oban, there being a unbroken ‘golden thread’ linking those early days to today and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), where I am writing as its Director in my office in the Sir John Murray building!

When the film was recorded, I was Director of the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science but from my earliest days as a PhD student in Dundee I had wanted to work at SAMS. Fate again prevailed and the opportunity to become the Director became available and I was very fortunate and privileged to be offered the position.  And I am pleased to say that one of the first things I did after starting work was to go to the library and look over the full set of Challenger reports that SAMS owns.

Some things were perhaps meant to be! I hope you enjoy the film.’ Professor Nick Owens.

The Man Who Challenged the Deep

Stirling Story and Legacy

 Sir John Murray (1841-1914) is widely recognised as the founder of oceanography and was the first to use the term. Indeed, his contribution to the wider aquatic sciences, particularly in Scotland, cannot be underestimated. Murray was born in Canada in 1841, to Scottish parents. He travelled to Scotland as a boy, living in Bridge of Allan and attending Stirling High School, before going to the University of Edinburgh. His early years in Stirling, and particularly his Scottish family and the friends he made, influenced both his interests and his subsequent ability to pursue them. These relationships have created a scientific legacy that continues to influence our aquatic sciences in Scotland and beyond to this day.

See the full programme of the Stirling Science Festival.

Event Info

Cost - £


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