Matthew Maury
PHOTO: Library of Congress

MATTHEW MAURY


Know anything about oceanography? Oceanography is the study of oceans -- currents, ocean temperatures, the terrain at the bottom of the ocean, -- this sort of thing. Since Tennessee has no coastline, you'd think that we wouldn't know much about oceanography. Think again. In fact, Tennessee native Matthew Fontaine Maury is often called the Father of Oceanography -- not just in the United States, but in the world.

Maury was born in Virginia in 1806 but grew up in Franklin, Tennessee. By the way, Maury County was named for a distant relative of his named Abram Maury.

In 1825, Matthew Maury joined the U.S. Navy as a midshipman (officer in training). His father was furious at Maury for accepting it, since Matthew's brother John had preceded him to the navy and died of yellow fever on ship.

One of many books about Maury
From the time of his first voyage, Maury set himself apart from the other midshipmen and officers. He was curious about everything. He began keeping complete logs of everything he saw on board ship. On long voyages he began dropping thermometers, attached to ropes, into the water so that he could chart the changing water temperature. He thus pinpointed the locations of ocean currents. After he published a book showing the location of an ocean current around South America, the time it took to sail around that continent was greatly reduced.

Having mastered every navigational book that he could find, Maury started collecting books that the U. S. Navy didn't know about. He then wrote his own navigational book, which was soon considered the best navigational textbook written by an American.

In the 1840s and 1850s Maury made discovery after discovery, becoming world famous in the process. Among his many theories that later turned out to be true is the idea that water (not land) lies beneath the North Pole. In 1853 he organized an international conference of seafaring nations in Belgium in which he asked every ship of every nation to start gathering standardized data on their voyages. The event was a success, and the information gathered as a result was used to chart the seas.

Maury had many critics in the U. S. Navy, however, many of whom were jealous of the attention that he was always getting. And, in 1861, he resigned his position as head of the U. S. Naval Observatory because of the Civil War. He died in 1873. Today there are statues of him in several countries.