Matthew Maury

Maury as a U.S. Navy lieutenant in 1853


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” and “Pathfinder of the Seas.”

Maury was born in Virginia in 1806 but grew up in Franklin, Tennessee. 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.

Bust of Maury in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York City PHOTO: Jim Henderson

From the time of his first voyage, Maury set himself apart from the other midshipmen and officers. 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 gather and share data on their voyages. The event was a success, and the information gathered as a result was used to chart the seas.

In 1861, he resigned his position as head of the U. S. Naval Observatory because he sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. In fact, during the war he was head of the Confederacy’s “torpedo” building operations (what they used to call torpedoes are now called mines).

Maury died in 1873 and was buried between Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.