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WHOI Office of the Director records, (John Hyslop Steele)

Identifier: AC-09.6

Scope and Content Note

The records of the WHOI Office of the Director, 1977-1989 (John Hyslop Steele) consist of 20 boxes (25 linear feet) of records which span the years 1964 to 1988, with the bulk of the material falling within his years as Director.

The first two series are jointly the records of John Steele and his predecessor Paul Fye, and are also described in the WHOI Office of the Director (Paul Fye) Records, AC-09.5.

While processing the collection, folder titles were often abbreviated, however in the box listing they were spelled out for clarification. Folders that are restricted, specifically personnel files, have ‘R’ placed at the end of the folder title or series name. Several of Steele’s files can also be found in the records of Office of Director, Craig Dorman.


  • Majority of material found within 1977-1989

Language of Materials

The records are in



Closed/Restricted: materials are only available to the Office of Origin for thirty years, after which they may only be viewed by the Office of Origin or with permission of the Archivist.


Copyright: Permission to publish material from the collection must be authorized by the Institution Archivist.

Administrative History

John Hyslop Steele served as the Institution’s fifth Director from October 1, 1977 to February 1, 1989. Prior to his directorship Steele served as Deputy Director of the Marine Laboratory of the Aberdeen Laboratory, Scotland from 1951 to 1977. He first came to WHOI in 1958 as a Visiting Research Fellow, and between 1959 and 1961 he took part in WHOI’s studies of the Sargasso Sea. He also served on the Scientific Visiting Committee for the Biology Department in 1973 and 1975. Charles F. Adams, then Chairman of WHOI’s Board of Trustees, said, “the Board is pleased to have attracted Dr. Steele. He is an original, provocative, and creative oceanographer with a worldwide reputation.” 1 In 1973 the National Academy of Sciences awarded Steele the prestigious Alexander Agassiz medal for his contribution to theoretical and practical studies of the factors controlling the primary production of the sea. Steele joined the Institution at a fiscally challenging time.

Inflation in the United States beginning in the 1970s made sustained rapid growth at WHOI increasingly difficult in the 1980s. Responding to the nationwide outcry over pollution of the environment, including the oceans, Congress and the President established numerous Federal environmental programs and agencies and enlarged others. The Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were two of these. While the growth of interest in the oceans could only be considered good, it meant competition for tax dollars for programs dependent on NSF [National Science Foundation] and the Navy, such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

It was in this climate that John Steele assumed the Directorship of WHOI. With his appointment, the Trustees reaffirmed their dedication to the basic founding tenets of the Oceanographic Institution, although they had little advice as to how to meet the challenges that lay ahead. 2

Steele brought with him considerable experience in national and international programs and projects. He had previously served on the National Science Foundation review panel for the International Decade of Ocean Exploration, as well as the NSF Steering Committee for the Controlled Ecosystem Pollution Experiment (CEPEX). He was also a member of several committees of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), and participated in the activities of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and the scientific committee on oceanic research.

In 1977 I moved to Woods Hole as Director of WHOI and became a very full time administrator. In this new context, I became more and more involved with…global programs. WOCE (World Ocean Circulation Experiment), JGOFS (Joint Global Ocean Flux Study) and other acronyms provided an increasing portion of WHOI funding over the next decade. The whole paraphernalia of Steering Committees and Working Groups arose. The funding agencies often dealt directly with the program offices set up to manage the field work. We were entering the new world of e-mail and Community Models. 3

In the first years of his directorship Steele’s agenda for oceanography for the coming decade included the study of climate change where ocean dynamics were a central issue. He also described potential tools for such research, including satellites that could give more information about both the physical and biological processes that had to be understood for insight into global problems like ocean climate. Furthermore, the promulgation of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) more than doubled the ocean area under US jurisdiction.

During Steele’s directorship the Institution saw changes in the extent of its facilities and centers. Among WHOI’s research vessels, the most noticeable loss was the 1979 departure of R/V Chain after seventeen years of service. A new, slightly larger Asterias replaced the nearly 50 year-old vessel of the same name. Alvin ’s diving season resumed in 1978 after an overhaul that included replacement of the 23-ft. aluminum frame with a 25-ft. titanium frame and addition of an optional second arm. In June 1979 she celebrated her fifteenth anniversary and nearly one thousand dives. Plans to replace R/V Lulu resulted from the need to increase the endurance, range, speed, laboratory space, and personnel accommodations for Alvin operations. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research, Atlantis II was given a major overhaul, converted from steam to diesel power, and then converted in 1982 to handle the submersible, Alvin .

In 1979 Paul Fye, President of the Corporation, announced a grant exceeding 1.5 million dollars from the Fleischmann Foundation toward construction of a geosciences research center on the Quissett Campus. The new McLean Laboratory was completed in 1980 to house the deep-sea sample collection, laboratories, and the Institution Archives. With a 1.75 million-dollar start up grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Steele founded the Coastal Research Center in 1979 to help meet the growing need for a focal point for scientific work on nearshore problems. John H. Ryther, Senior Scientist in the Biology Department, was the first Director of the Coastal Research Center, serving until October 1981. A Planning Committee consisting of representatives from the Scientific Staff of each WHOI department, the Marine Policy Program, and the Sea Grant Program was established with the charge of providing advice to the Center Director in areas of research projects, budgets, and experimental facilities. John W. Farrington served as first Chairman of the Planning Committee until October 1981, when he succeeded Ryther as Center Director. William D. Grant succeeded Farrington as Chairman of the Planning Committee, which was made a permanent Advisory Committee.  In his comments for the WHOI 1980 Annual Report, Steele wrote:

The rapid establishment of the CRC as part of the Institution’s activities emphasizes the need to diversify our work, especially in relation to the requirements of society for information about the marine environment. Undoubtedly this will remain a major factor in our future planning. We see a renewed general emphasis on engineering. And the seas are a prime area where developments in technology limit our use and our research in the oceans.

As well as these immediate aspects, we must pursue the development of our science as an intellectual discipline..…We have come to realize that some of the superficial uncertainties, appearing often as a lack of knowledge, may prefigure deeper questions of indeterminacy. The intellectual and conceptual development of this picture of an inherently indeterminate reality may be more significant, to society as well as to ourselves (and to our funding), than application of our present knowledge to our immediate environmental problems

Thus we must be involved in education, not only of our future colleagues, but of other scientists, as well as the larger society. I believe that, in the future, we can provide the sense of elegance, the elements of rigor, together with the texture of a world exhibiting both mystery and coherence.” 4

Other new facilities included a new chemistry building named the Paul M. Fye Laboratory, dedicated in 1983. In 1985 the WHOI Sea Grant Program achieved Institutional Program status, with a balance of research and outreach activities at a level of 60/40 percent, respectively. In 1987 the Center for Marine Exploration, headed by Robert Ballard, was established to foster the continued development of unmanned deep ocean systems and provide a focal point for marine scientists and others to explore the sea. By December 1988 the steel framework for an addition to the Clark Laboratory was in place.

In 1980 WHOI scientists became heavily involved in the early phases of several major multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary programs including the Transient Tracers in the Ocean program (TTO), WOCE, and the Coastal Ocean Dynamics Experiment (CODE). These and other multi-institutional programs from the 1970s, including such highly funded projects as the HEBBLE project (High Energy Benthic Boundary Layer Experiment), became a major portion of the Institution’s total research effort. 1980 also marked WHOI’s fiftieth anniversary and yearlong celebration of events including a two-part meeting involving the Third International Congress on the History of Oceanography, followed by a symposium that addressed the question, “Will we use the oceans wisely-the next 50 years of oceanography?” Changes in physical oceanography from smaller, often one-man research programs of the 1960s and 1970s evolved into a trend in programs of a global scale as a means of understanding the ocean’s role in climate change. The advent of a variety of satellite-based observational systems made such large programs possible. Three national programs planned for the 1990s and heavily involving WHOI scientists included WOCE, Global Ocean Flux Study (GOFS), and Coastal Ocean Dynamics and Fluxes (CODF).

By 1984, half of WHOI’s funding came from the NSF, another 25 percent came from the US Navy, and the rest came from non-federal sources. In 1985, NSF and NASA gave high priority to the emerging vision of the oceans as a global system determining the earth’s habitability; the Administration recognized WHOI’s contributions in basic science to the US Navy. By 1986 new programs emerged to study global changes in the environment over the next decade, programs that had ocean science as a central and critical component requiring significant increases in support. Oceanography had become a significant proportion of the funding of basic science, and WHOI benefited. Within NSF alone, the Institution took nearly twenty-five percent of the funding available for oceanography. Steele’s wrote in his comments for the 1986 annual report:

Turning to…support for national missions, we have demonstrated the importance of our defense strategies, of new technologies and a knowledge of ocean dynamics. We can point to support from the Secretary of the Navy. The Office of Naval Research has a unique role in defining and funding basic research related to their objectives. The Navy’s interest in understanding and predicting intermediate scale events in the ocean complements the larger-scale programs and our need to maintain a global presence. We are beginning to see a reversal in the trend over the last decade of declining Navy support for ocean science. 5

Indeed, by the end of his tenure, Steele noted the difficulty in being assured long term funding from the main federal agencies that supported WHOI’s work. Competition for federal funding sources dramatically increased at the end of the 1980s. The average success rate for NSF grants had fallen from 70 to 30 percent and ONR support had become less reliable. Scientists also wrote twice as many proposals as they did in 1980. Younger scientists evaluating their career prospects and job options also had to consider the potential for long term institutional support for themselves and their research. WHOI shifted the emphasis of its private fund-raising to endowment for support of people through chairs and awards which, coupled with the education endowment and programmatic grants from private foundations, provided 25 percent of the support for the scientific staff.

In 1985 WHOI’s involvement with the discovery of the Titanic on September 1st earned the Institution considerable national and international attention. A return trip the following year to test the Deep Submergence Lab’s prototype vehicle JASON JR. provided remarkable photographs and videotapes of the sunken liner. In November 1985 the space shuttle Atlantis was launched on its first scientific mission, carrying as a memento a piece of the mast of its namesake, WHOI’s first research vessel Atlantis . The space shuttle was one of four, each named for great ships of discovery. Also in November, Steele was sworn in as committee chairman of the Massachusetts Center for Excellence in Marine Science, which encompassed marine facilities in southeastern Massachusetts. In 1988, WHOI embarked on a significant interdisciplinary, inter-institutional expedition to study the Black Sea aboard R/V Knorr , thus continuing the Institution’s long tradition of work in the Black Sea. Previous trips included the 7-week long cruise in 1969 aboard Atlantis II , and a shorter cruise aboard Chain in 1975. The MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography and Oceanographic Engineering celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1988 whose events included a symposium on “Ocean Sciences and Technology: Preparing for the Next Millennium.” WHOI Assistant Dean A. Lawrence Peirson III also received a plaque engraved with: “For twenty years of dedicated service in making the Joint Program what it is today – the best.” 1989 also marked the year the first degrees were awarded in the new Joint Master’s degree program with MIT.

By the end of Steele’s administration, WHOI’s budget and endowment had risen substantially and the Institution was fiscally strong. When Steele stepped down as director in 1989 he remained President of the Corporation to permit his increased involvement in external affairs, including fund raising. He also retained a position as senior scientist, pursuing his research and writing interests through an affiliation with the Institution’s Marine Policy Center.

In addition to his Institutional responsibilities, Steele also participated on various committees and boards, including the Ocean Studies Board of NAS, the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, and the Space and Earth Science Advisory Committee of the NASA Advisory Council. He was Chairman of the Board of Governors of Joint Oceanographic Institutions, Inc. (JOI) (an organization of the ten largest marine research laboratories in the US), and a member of the Board of the Massachusetts Center of Excellence in Marine Science. In September 1988 President Reagan appointed Steele to the Arctic Research Commission. His qualifications for the commission included service as a member of the Polar Research Board of the NSF; service as chairman for three years on a committee for the Office of Technology Assessment in oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean; and the fact that the Institution was becoming more involved in arctic research. “The main reason I am pleased to take this on is that I think that the role of the arctic and global changes, such as climate, are becoming more significant. My own interest and the interest of this institution are particularly in the areas of high-latitude oceanography, national security and global climate change.” 6

He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the American Academy of Arts and Science, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He served as a Trustee of the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, a Corporation member of the Marine Biological Laboratory, a member of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and a member of the US Delegation to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. He considered his main achievement “the tremendous output of science” during his term, which he said should ensure WHOI’s continued scientific leadership as it confronts ‘the challenges of the future’.” 7

  1. 1 “Dr. John H. Steele Elected Director,”Woods Hole Notes 9, no. 2 (August 1977): 1.
  2. 2 Arthur G. Gaines Jr., “The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts,” inOcean Frontiers: Explorations by Oceanographers on Five Continents (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 70.
  3. 3 John H. Steele, “ICES and the New World of Oceanography,”ICES Information , no.28 (1996): 5-6.
  4. 4 John H. Steele, “Director’s Comments,”Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Annual Report 1980 (1981): 3.
  5. 5 John H. Steele, “Director’s Comments,”Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Annual Report 1986 (1987): 3.
  6. 6 “WHOI Director Named to Federal Arctic Panel,”Cape Cod Times, 7 September 1988.
  7. 7 Frederic Golden, “Getting back the Union Card,”Oceanus 32, no.1 (1989): 126.


20 boxes (25 linear feet)


The records of the WHOI Office of the Director, 1977-1989 consist of the administrative records of Director John Hyslop Steele.


Materials were retained in their original order, organized chronologically or alphabetically. The records are divided into 5 series:

Custodial History

The records were maintained in the Office of the Director until their transfer to the WHOI Archives.

Acquisitions Information

The records of John Steele, WHOI Director 1978-1989, were transferred into the Archives during and after his directorship. John Steele’s materials arrived in the archives in 1987 and 1989.

Related Material

Additional sources of information about the history of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution during John Steele’s directorship include WHOI’s Annual Report for the years 1977-1989, which detail the yearly scientific and administrative activities of the Institution as well as its physical growth. The Director’s Annual Reports to Trustees and the Corporation further highlight activities of the Institution. Material about Steele is also available in the WHOI Biographical Files.

Processing Information

Processing of the collection was partly supported by a Grant-in-Aid from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. Processed by Margot Garritt and Kathryn Owens.

A Guide to the WHOI Office of the Director records, (John Hyslop Steele), 1977-1989
Margot Garritt
December 1998
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written inEnglish

Repository Details

Part of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Data Library and Archives Repository