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.
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.
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.
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.
Did you know?
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.