School of GeoSciences

John Murray

Sir John Murray (1841-1914) - Founder of Modern Oceanography


Born in Canada of Scottish descent, Murray came to Scotland to be educated and eventually entered Edinburgh University, ostensibly to study medicine. Instead he joined a whaler as surgeon for a seven month voyage to the Arctic. Like Edward Forbes and Wyville Thomson before him, Murray took no examinations and on his return studied as he pleased, in particular zoology and geology (with Geikie). In 1872 he was working under Peter Guthrie Tait, Professor of Natural Philosophy, and it was Tait who recommended him to Wyville Thomson (Professor of Natural History). He participated as an assistant scientist on the Challenger Expedition (1872-6) under the leadership of Wyville Thomson. On their return to Edinburgh, Wyville Thomson resumed his professorship of Natural History, but also was appointed Director of the Treasury-sponsored Challenger Commission, for which Murray and Frederick Pearcey were employed. This work was conducted in the Natural History Department until Wyville Thomson's death in 1882, and involved collaboration with many eminent international marine scientists including A. Agassiz (Harvard), Schmidt and Haeckel (Germany) and Moseley and Mackintosh (Britain). This collaboration produced the first volume of the Challenger Report, which was published in 1880. One of the unfortunate consequences of Wyville Thomson's death was that the official connection of the Challenger Commission with Edinburgh University ended, as the University was primarily interested in other fields.

From 1882-84 Murray conducted research on the Challenger collection, as well as many other collections of marine deposits forwarded to him from expeditions sent out by Norway, Italy, France, Germany and the United States. To do this, he collaborated notably with Renard (Belgium) and A. Agassiz using Challenger Commission funds until 1887, and thereafter at his own expense until 1895 when his editing of the Challenger Report was finally finished. During this period and into the 1900's Murray also conducted research on marine deposits and oceanographic observations in the N.E. Atlantic and off western Scotland, the tropics and the great oceans, with notable collaboration from Anderson, Buchanan, Irvine and Hjort.

In 1883, he set up the Edinburgh Marine Laboratory at Granton, the first of its kind in Britain. This laboratory was moved to Millport in 1894 to become the Scottish Marine Station for work in the Clyde Sea area, the forerunner of the Scottish Marine Biological Association (SMBA) and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS).

Throughout this time Edinburgh retained a dominant position at the head of the oceanographic community. In 1900, Herdman (Natural History, Liverpool) wrote in that "for about twenty years Edinburgh was the centre of oceanographic research and the Mecca towards which marine scientists from all over the world turned".

The contribution of Murray's research in oceanography is immense. Besides coining the name "oceanography", Murray is noted today as the founder of modern oceanography.

Of his many research achievements, the following are examples:

  • His study of ocean depths, especially from the Challenger Expedition, was first to observe the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the existence of marine trenches
  • He attempted with Buchan to construct from temperature and salinity observations a qualitative theory of water movement in the world's oceans. Only in the 1900s was this work superseded by scholars in Germany
  • His work with Renard of mapping the marine deposits of the world's oceans was monumental. He identified the importance of aeolian dust and volcanic constituents in the makeup of red clays. His maps on the distribution of carbonates, siliceous deposits and manganese nodules form the basis of understanding oceanic sedimentology
  • He investigated and experimented on the dissolution of calcium carbonate and was the first to identify the carbonate compensation depth in oceans
  • With Agassiz he put forward a modified hypothesis for coral reef development, arguing against Darwin's hypothesis and suggesting that subsidence was not always a controlling mechanism
  • He was also first to identify marine sediment diagenesis from observations in sediments off Scotland, particularly with respect to manganese and other metal recycling. From his Granton experiments he established that organic matter respiration was the dominant control on this, and that organic matter in sediments dictated the speciation of dissolved carbon in sediment pore waters. This work was not superseded until 1960 and is fundamental in the understanding of organic carbon cycling on the planet.
  • In 1905, with Pullar, he published the definitive work on freshwater Scottish lochs, which involved their hydrography, bathymetry and sedimentology

The year 1914 was a sad one for the oceanographic community, as at the age of 73, John Murray was killed by a motor car as he crossed Frederick Street, Edinburgh. The laboratories annexed to the Grant Institute are named for him.