Dr. Eugenie Clark (1922-2015)

The life and legacy of an ocean pioneer

Dr. Eugenie Clark

The 'Shark Lady'

Dr. Eugenie Clark was a scientific pioneer who greatly contributed to people's knowledge of sharks and other fish, and who worked tirelessly to improve sharks' reputation in the public eye. Image courtesy of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.

Few women, let alone those of Japanese American descent, were working in the male-dominated field of marine biology shortly after World War II. Dr. Eugenie Clark changed all that. A scientific pioneer who greatly contributed to people’s knowledge of sharks and other fish, Clark worked to improve sharks’ reputation in the public eye.  Perhaps more importantly, she challenged the stereotypes surrounding women in science by proving that women had much to contribute to the scientific community.

Early Life and Education

Born in New York City on May 4, 1922, Clark learned to swim before the age of two. She often credited her childhood visits to the New York Aquarium as fostering her passion for the aquatic world, together with her Japanese heritage and the central role of the sea in Japanese culture.

Working to pay her way through Hunter College in the early 1940s, Clark studied ichthyology, the branch of biology devoted to the study of fish. Following graduate research in the South Pacific, she took a job at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. Scripps is where she learned to scuba dive, a skill that Clark used continuously throughout her career in ocean research.

From 'Dr. Clark' to 'The Shark Lady'

In 1950, Clark earned her PhD from New York University with research on the live-bearing reproduction of platys and swordtail fish. Later that year, as a Fulbright Scholar, Clark conducted research in the virtually unexplored waters of the Red Sea from the Al-Ghardaqah Marine Biological Station in Egypt. Her memoir of her time there, Lady with a Spear (1953), was an international bestseller.

Clark discovered several fish species, among them Trichonotus nikii, a Red Sea sand diver named after her son Nikolas, and the Red Sea Moses sole (Pardachirus marmoratus), which produces a natural shark repellent. Her passion, however, was studying sharks and dispelling myths and fears about them through education. It was Clark who discovered that some shark species do not have to swim continuously to breathe. Her work with “sleeping sharks” in Mexico was a tremendous advancement in the understanding of shark behavior and biology. Her efforts earned her the unofficial but widely used name of “the Shark Lady”.

Clark’s career, which spanned half a century, included work with the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society), the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. In 1955, she founded the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. Known today as Mote Marine Laboratory, its focus has expanded from shark research to include wild fisheries, coral reef restoration, marine mammals, marine biomedical research, and related fields.

In 1968, Dr. Clark joined the faculty of the University of Maryland, where she taught marine biology until her retirement in 1992. Clark lectured across the globe to promote greater understanding of sharks and the marine environment, and also wrote extensively for National Geographic and other publications.

A Lasting Legacy

Eugenie Clark made her last dive in June 2014. She died on February 25, 2015, at the age of 92. She leaves a legacy that will inform her fellow scientists and ocean lovers for generations to come. On March 16, 2015, the U.S. Congress posthumously honored and recognized Dr. Clark for her efforts to understand and preserve the ocean realm.

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Dr. Clark received numerous honors and awards during her long career, including a 1996 Emmy Award for her underwater films. In 1989, she was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.