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Richard H. Backus papers

 Record Group
Identifier: MC-34

Scope and Content Note

The papers consist of a portion of the papers kept by Richard H. Backus during his tenure at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The first part of the collection, Series 1 spans 1958-1960 and consists of questionnaires completed by students of a weeklong workshop held at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in December of 1958 and again in December of 1959.

Series 2, spanning 1961-1962, is comprised of correspondence documenting the attempted ouster of WHOI director Paul M. Fye in 1961 by several members of the scientific staff, including Richard Backus.

The bulk of the collection, Series 3 consists of correspondence, manuscript drafts, financial information, and all other production information pertaining to the book Georges Bank, of which Richard Backus served as Editor-in-Chief.

Series 4 is a small addition including a memoir Dick wrote about his experiences on the Atlantis II Cruise 59 in 1970 entitled Living and Working at Sea: Madeira to the Cape Verdes to Woods Hole. Also included in this series is a scrapbook of photos of the entire crew from that cruise.


  • 1959-2001

Language of Materials

The records are in



Open: materials are available for research.


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

Biographical Information

Richard H. "Dick" Backus received his A.B. in Botany in 1946 from Dartmouth College. He had entered Dartmouth in 1940, but left after two years to serve in World War II as a First Lieutenant Aerial Navigator, U.S. Army Air Force. In 1948 Dick earned his M.S. in Vertebrate Zoology and his Ph.D. in Ichthyology in 1953, both from Cornell University. Dick joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in September 1952, as a Biology Research Associate in Dr. J. Brackett Hersey’s underwater sound group. He served as Research Associate until 1959 and as Marine Biologist until 1963, when he was appointed Senior Scientist. In 1963, the Institution re-organized its scientific departments by discipline, and Hersey’s underwater sound group became part of the Geophysics department. In 1967, Dick and the rest of his group transferred from Geophysics into Biology. He served as Chair of the Biology department from 1970-1974 and from 1986-1987.

During his tenure at Woods Hole Oceanograpic Institution, Dick was known as the local shark expert. He co-authored the 1970 book The Natural History of Sharks with Thomas H. Lineaweaver III. When the film Jaws was released in the United States in 1975, the Institution was inundated with calls from people curious about sharks. All calls were directed to Dick, who was also featured in People magazine and interviewed for newspapers, radio and TV programs that summer.

Since his retirement in 1988, Dick has retained Scientist Emeritus status at the Institution. He resides in Woods Hole with his wife, Denise Franklin Backus. They have five children.


7 boxes (3.25 lin. ft.)


The Richard H. Backus papers span the years 1959-2001, and reflect Backus' tenure at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The papers consist of questionnaires completed by students of a weeklong workshop held at WHOI in 1958 and 1959, correspondence documenting the attempted ouster of WHOI director Paul M. Fye in 1961, production information pertaining to the book “Georges Bank," of which Backus served as Editor, and a memoir and scrapbook Backus wrote about his experiences on the Atlantis II Cruise 59.


Arranged in five series:

Custodial History

The custodial history of the collection is undocumented.

Acquisitions Information

Deposited on April 5, 2000 by Richard H. Backus. Additional material which became Series 4 was deposited on October 26, 2004 by Richard H. Backus.

Separated Material

The collection was reduced from 4.5 linear feet to 3 feet by removing duplicates. Onionskin paper, carbon copies, and newspaper were replaced with photocopies to prevent acid migration.

Processing Information

The collection was processed by Carrie Tobey under the supervision of Marisa Hudspeth, from March 1 through April 5, 2004. Finding aid was completed by Carrie Tobey on April 26, 2004. Series 4 of the collection was added with the donation of Acc. 2004-70. The finding aid was updated accordingly by Marisa Hudspeth on October 26, 2004.

Staples and paper clips were removed; all multi-page documents were then filed inside a folded sheet of 11x17 paper to preserve the creator’s original intent.

A Guide to the the Richard H. Backus papers, 1959-2001
Carrie Tobey and Marisa Hudspeth
April 26, 2004; updated October 26, 2004
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