Sir John Murray: the man behind the name

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We named our survey boat after him; students at the University of Edinburgh study in laboratories named in his honour; he lends his name to a society at Newcastle University; and a deep sea octopus and a family of sea sponges were named for him. But who was Sir John Murray and how did his life inspire so many? One hundred years on from his death we take a closer look.

Sir John MurrayBorn in 1841 to Scottish parents, Murray spent his early years growing up in Ontario, Canada. Aged 17 he was sent to Scotland to continue his education and it is said that it was this voyage that first sparked his interest in the marine environment. Back in Scotland he attended Stirling High school and then went on to the University of Edinburgh, with the intention of studying medicine. However, after joining a whaling expedition bound for the Arctic in 1868 his career began to take a different path. During this voyage, indulging his personal interest in the sea, he collected examples of the marine plants and animals he encountered and started recording his observations on currents, temperature and sea ice. On his return, rather than continuing with medicine, he studied geology and natural philosophy and during holidays would hire fishing boats to carry out his own studies of the sea and marine sediments.

In 1872 he joined the Challenger Expedition as a scientific assistant. The expedition, led by Charles Wyville Thomson, set out to circumnavigate the globe and explore the deep oceans. As one of four assistants, Murray was tasked with investigating the sediments and deposits of the ocean floor. During his three and a half years onboard the HMS Challenger, he made many groundbreaking discoveries about how ocean sediments are formed, how their composition varies and where different types of sediment are found. Much of what he discovered and his explanations still stand today and form the basis of oceanic sedimentology. He also carried out work to map the shape of the ocean floor, which led to his discovery of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the existence of marine trenches. In addition to his sediment and mapping work, Murray was also involved in collecting and cataloguing samples of marine animals. Rather than just tow the sampling nets at the surface, as was the common practice, he decided to use them at greater depths, resulting in a greater number of organisms being collected. The specimens collected by the Challenger Expedition led to the discovery of over 4,000 new marine species.

At the end of the voyage Thomson asked Murray to stay on and help him set up the Challenger Expedition Commission and prepare and publish a report on their findings. After Thomson’s untimely death in 1882, Murray took on sole responsibility for the report. By 1896 it was completed and, stretching to more than 50 volumes, laid the foundations for almost every branch of modern oceanography.

While still working on the report, Murray continued with his own research and in 1884, set up the Edinburgh Marine Laboratory at Granton, the first of its kind in Britain. This later moved to Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae becoming the Scottish Marine Station, which was the forerunner for today’s Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) based in Oban. The research centre at Millport is still in use and began operating as a Field Studies Council teaching facility earlier this year.

Key research

Some of Murray’s more notable research includes:

  • his discovery of the Wyville Thomson Ridge between the Faroe Islands and Scotland, which separates the colder bottom waters of the Arctic from the warmer waters of the North Atlantic and has now been designated as an offshore Special Area of Conservation (SAC);
  • work with Alexander Agassiz on coral reefs, which challenged Charles Darwin’s widely accepted theory on how they form (when an island sinks back into the sea) as the only way a coral reef develops;
  • estimates of ocean floor depths using rope and wire soundings, the accuracy of which haven’t be altered much since, even with the use of more modern equipment;
  • his early work on marine sediment diagenesis (the changes that happen to the mineral content of sediment as it is turned into sedimentary rock), in particular looking at what happens to manganese and dissolved carbon, which laid the foundation for our understanding of organic carbon cycling today;
  • the coordination of a survey of 562 Scottish freshwater lochs looking at hydrography, bathymetry and sedimentology, the results of which were published in six volumes in 1910.

Among other honouSir John Murray at workrs and awards in recognition of his scientific work, in 1898 Murray received a KCB (Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath).

In March 1914, when Murray was 73 years old, he was tragically killed when his car overturned near his home in Kirkliston. Despite this, the contribution he made to our understanding of the marine environment and the research he carried out has ensured that his name lives on, even now, one hundred years on from his death. Often referred to as the founder of modern oceanography and a pioneer in marine biology and sedimentology, it seems only fitting that our flagship survey vessel bears his name and, in some small way, continues the work he started.

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