Skip to main content

WHOI Office of the Director records, (Henry Bryant Bigelow)

Identifier: AC-09.1

Scope and Content Note

The records of the WHOI Office of the Director, 1930-1939 (Bigelow) consist of over 5 cartons (6.6 linear feet) of material. Two files which predate the Institution’s founding include Rockefeller Foundation, 1929-1935 (box 3, f.32) and Redfield, A.C., 1928-1935 (box 2, f.2). The content of all the correspondence in Bigelow’s directors files deals mainly with the administrative business of establishing the Institution. It also documents Bigelow’s interaction with scientists and other institutions in the development of collaborative scientific ties and does not reflect on Bigelow’s personal research work as a scientist.


  • Majority of material found within 1930-1939

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

Henry Bryant Bigelow (1879 - 1967) became the first Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1930 and held that position until 1939. In 1927, while Bigelow was Associate Professor of Zoology at Harvard University and Curator of Oceanography at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, he was asked to prepare a report for the Committee on Oceanography of the National Academy of Science,

"setting forth whether the United States was contributing as broadly as was desirable to the study of the oceans, and if not, what should be done to improve the situation. (Bigelow) spent about a year in the preparation of the report..." 1

The report was published in 1931 under his name as a book entitled Oceanography; Its Scope, Problems and Economic Importance. It led to the establishment of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, incorporated on January 6, 1930, with a grant from the Rockefeller Institute of $2 million plus $50,000 per year for ten years. The grant also provided additional financial benefits to oceanography and marine biology through gifts to the Scripps Institution, the University of Washington and the Bermuda Biological Station. In 1935, the original grant of $50,000 was replaced by an additional endowment of $1 million.

According to the deed of the gift, the first board of trustees was to consist of the then [13 member] Committee on Oceanography of the National Academy of Sciences. The first move, obviously, in the organization of the Institution, was to select a director. The trustees’ first choice was Dr. H. U. Sverdrup, but he declined, and the position was ’wished’ on [Bigelow]. The tasks that faced me were, a) to acquire a site for the Institution in Woods Hole, b) to plan and erect a laboratory building, and c) to plan and build a vessel for oceanographic research." 2

Originally, the Marine Biological Laboratory planned to donate the land for the building, but due to stipulations in the deed, the Carnegie Foundation finally purchased the land for the Institution for $27,000.

Bigelow faced a real challenge in accomplishing the selection of a staff for the new Institution as there was very little in the way of talent pool in the emerging field.

A primary objective was to give impetus to oceanographic studies in the universities, and there was the ‘developing viewpoint’ to be fostered. He chose the bolder course of recruiting from the universities a new generation of chemists, meteorologists, physiologists, bacteriologists - whoever could be persuaded that scope for their skills could be found in studies at sea. The practice grew that each should make at least one short voyage at sea each season. 3

Among Bigelow’s early staff appointments were Alfred Redfield and George Clark from Harvard University; Norris Rakestraw, a chemist from Brown; Carl G. Rossby, an MIT meteorologist; Albert Parr, a Yale oceanographer and licensed seaman; Selman Waksman, a prominent soil microbiologist; and Floyd Soule of the International Ice Patrol. With this staff came students, including Mary Sears, a student of Bigelow, and Columbus Iselin, a former student of Bigelow; Bostwick Ketchum, a student of Redfield; Athelstan Spilhaus and Raymond Montgomery, students of Rossby; and others. This core of professionals would continue in long-term association with the Institution. By the summer of 1931 the Institution was in active operation when its first research vessel Atlantis , designed by Professor George Owen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and commanded by Captain Iselin, arrived in Woods Hole from Copenhagen. This was a fulfillment of one of the primary objectives of the founders:

From the time when the prospects of the new Institution were discussed in earnest, the trustees have appreciated that one of the most important things that it could do would be to operate a seagoing research ship of moderate size, with convenient living quarters, and equipped to carry on investigation at all depths in the various lines of sea science. No other American marine laboratory, independent of the government is able to do this. 4

Bigelow’s directorship coincided with his association with Harvard University and he was only in residence in Woods Hole during the summer, (allowing him to have an unbroken record of 55 years service to Harvard). During the first summer of operation in 1930, twenty-nine scientific investigators and assistants worked in the laboratory, which continued as a summer institution until the winter of 1940-41. As an accomplished zoologist and a recognized authority on both coelenterates and fishes, Bigelow continued to conduct significant research in his field during this period and published more than 17 books and papers in collaboration with William C. Schroeder, Columbus Iselin, Mary Sears and others.

During Bigelow’s term as director, the Institution grew in size and scope. The Atlantis was engaged in fieldwork conducted aboard fourteen cruises between 1930-1932. Joint publication of Papers in Physical Oceanography and Meteorology (PPOM) by the Institution and MIT began with the first number in March of 1933, and covered the scientific results of the Nautilus expedition. By 1937, the cooperative field of activities between WHOI and other institutions had greatly expanded. These included a continued joint survey of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico with Yale University’s Bingham Oceanographic Foundation. Other activities included hydrographic investigations for the U. S. Navy; Lehigh University and Dr. Ewing’s use of the Atlantis ; a grant from the Geological Society of America to develop improved submarine seismic instruments; and a joint investigation, with the Bermuda Biological Laboratory, of the variations in the North American drift and Gulf Stream systems. In 1939, the growth of collaborative ventures, both aboard the Atlantis and in the laboratories, had reached a point in which every room in the laboratory was in service.

Upon retiring as director in 1939, Bigelow was elected a member and President of the Board of Trustees. WHOI also founded the Henry Bryant Bigelow Chair in Oceanography in 1958. In 1960, recognizing his great service to the Institution, he was named Founder Chairman of the Board. He was also the first recipient of the Henry Bryant Bigelow Medal, an award established that year in his honor. During his lifetime, Henry Bigelow was honored often for his achievements. Michael Graham wrote about the personality of the man who was so instrumental in organizing the Institution and establishing a model for scientific integrity that has remained to this day: "One had the feeling that he was a man of such excellence and such exceeding pleasantness that not for a moment would one relax in the effort to do one’s very best in order to support him as far as possible." 5

Henry Bryant Bigelow died on December 11, 1967.

  1. 1 Henry B. Bigelow,Memories of a Long and Active Life (Cambridge: Cosmos Press, 1964), 31.
  2. 2 Henry B. Bigelow, ibid., 31-32.
  3. 3 Alfred C. Redfield, "Henry Bryant Bigelow, 1879-1967," Biographical Memoirs 48 (1976): 61.
  4. 4 Henry B. Bigelow, "Reports of the Director."Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Report for the Years 1930-1932 (1933):16
  5. 5 Michael Graham, "Obituary of Henry Bryant Bigelow," Deep-Sea Research 15 (1968): 125.


5.4 boxes (6.75 linear feet)


Henry Bryant Bigelow’s Director's files deal mainly with the administrative business of establishing the Institution. The records also document Bigelow’s interaction with scientists and other institutions in the development of collaborative scientific ties.


The material is believed to be in its original arrangement. Each series is alphabetically arranged and organized into two chronological groups from 1930-1935, and 1935-1940. The records consists of the following series:

Custodial History

In 1960, the materials were moved from the Office of the Director to a new vault in the Blake Building. In 1971, both the Archives and the Data Library moved to the Data and Earth Sample Center Building, now the Crawford Building, on WHOI’s Quissett campus. In 1981, the Archives, containing the director’s files, moved to its current location in the basement of the McLean Building.

Acquisitions Information

The archival collection of Henry Bryant Bigelow, WHOI Director, 1930-1939 was transferred from the Office of the Director into archival storage in 1960.

Related Material

Other sources documenting Bigelow’s administration are available in the WHOI archives. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Annual Reports provide a summation of yearly progress in financial, personnel, building, and scientific perspectives. An unpublished collection of articles entitled A Compilation of Articles on the Early History of WHOI - Its Founding, Growth and Development (WHOI 1996 G43), contains ten articles and unpublished papers highlighting significant events in the Institution’s history. On Almost Any Wind: The Saga of the Oceanographic Research Vessel Atlantis by Susan Schlee, 1978, details the maiden and early voyages of the ship under Bigelow’s directorship. Bigelow’s role in the founding and development of the Institution is discussed from a variety of viewpoints in the collection entitled Oceanography: The Past, edited by Mary Sears and Daniel Merriman, 1980. Oceanography: Its Scope, Problems, and Economic Importance, Bigelow, 1931, provides the content of his report to the National Academy of Sciences. Memories of a Long and Active Life, 1964, also by Bigelow and Biographical Memoirs, Vol. XLVIII, 1976 by Alfred Redfield are good sources of biographical material and his work. Oceanus magazine, Vol. XIV no.2, 1968, contains tributes to Bigelow. The WHOI Biographical Files in the Archives contain biographical information as well as photographs of Bigelow. Bigelow’s personal papers are part of the Museum of Comparative Zoology Archives at Harvard University.

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 Brenda Rocklage and Margot Garritt in 1998. A volunteer, Ruth Davis, did basic preservation work and also prepared a folder list that served as a preliminary finding aid for the first eighteen original file boxes of director’s files. While processing the collection, folder titles were often abbreviated, however in the box listing they were spelled out for clarification.

A Guide to the WHOI Office of the Director records, (Henry Bryant Bigelow), 1930-1939
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