Henry Bryant Bigelow



Occupation 1


Occupation 2



Woods Hole founder


NA/New England region


Age of Steam and Steel (1866-1920)








Zoologist and oceanographer

He had the opportunity to work with the noted naturalist Alexander Agassiz from 1901 until Agassiz's death in 1910. Their studies of marine life took them to the Indian Ocean, the eastern Pacific, and the West Indies. During their first venture, to the Maldive Islands, Bigelow was responsible for caring for the jellyfish and other medusoid animals that were collected. This led to his longstanding interest in siphonophores, which are marine invertebrates that live in colonies and are in the same class as jellyfish. Bigelow's dissertation, on the hydrozoan Gonionemus vertens reflected his particular interest in marine invertebrates.

Bigelow began one of his seminal works in 1912, conducting a series of studies on the Gulf of Maine and continuing through 1928. Little was known about the Gulf before these studies. His methods were groundbreaking because he covered the entire body of water and made a nearly comprehensive study of its fishes, plankton, and physical oceanography.

These investigations displayed Bigelow's recognition of the value of synthesizing the disciplines that comprise the marine sciences. In "A Developing View-point in Oceanography" (Science 71 [24 Jan. 1930]: 84-89), Bigelow remarked, "In the further development of sea science the keynote must be physical, chemical and biological unity, not diversity, for everything that takes place in the sea within the realm of any one of these artificially divorced sciences impinges on all the rest of them" (p. 86).

As secretary of the Committee on Oceanography of the National Academy of Sciences, Bigelow wrote the report that led to the founding of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The report, titled "On the Scope, Problems and Economic Importance of Oceanography, on the Present Situation in America, and on the Handicaps to Development, with Suggested Remedies," was published in 1929. The NAS committee and the marine facility were both brain children of Frank Rattray Lillie, who was long affiliated with the Marine Biological Laboratory, also in Woods Hole.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was established the following year, and Bigelow was its first director, serving from 1930 to 1939. The institution was equipped from the start with a research vessel, the Atlantis. For the first few years, Bigelow required all staff members to take at least one short cruise each year on the Atlantis, believing that fieldwork was paramount to oceanographic studies.

After leaving Woods Hole Bigelow was editor-in-chief of Fishes of the Western North Atlantic, to which he also contributed. At the request of the U. S. Navy, Bigelow and W. T. Edmondson wrote Wind Waves at Sea, Breakers, and Surf (1947), an introductory text on waves and their effect on seagoing vessels.


Related Images

external image bigelow1912.gif
Image Id: 1230

Related Source

Physical Oceanography of the Gulf of Maine (1927)
Oceanography, its Scope, Problems and Economic Importance (1931)

Related Institutions

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI),

​Record ID: 392