John McGowan, a professor emeritus at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who was instrumental in documenting major shifts in Pacific Ocean marine life over a 60-year career, died Feb. 26, 2023. He was 98.
McGowan played an early role in the iconic ocean research program known as CalCOFI (California Cooperative Fisheries Investigations) as a young PhD. Over the course of decades, he helped invent tools for sampling marine life now used the world over. He also preserved the continuity of the Shore Stations network of coastal seawater collection sites, which has maintained records of fundamental conditions such as water temperature and salinity that stretch back to 1916, when the first such observations were made at Scripps Pier.
"I knew John’s work before I came to Scripps and looked forward to meeting him," said Scripps Oceanography Director Margaret Leinen. "He was enormously helpful in understanding the iconic Shore Stations time series that he fostered for decades as well as sharing his deep insights on the California Current ecosystem. He has left a remarkable legacy."
McGowan was both a member of the Greatest Generation, serving on an ammunition ship in the South Pacific during World War II, and a participant in what many call the golden age of oceanography, when ample research budgets allowed biologists, physicists, and geologists the ability to conduct expansive field campaigns to understand the basics of ocean and earth dynamics.
McGowan was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on Aug. 22, 1924 and grew up in a cottage just outside of town. One especially difficult year during the Depression, the family was forced to ride out the harsh winter in an uninsulated cabin on the shores of Lake Winnebago —the same lake where his fascination with biology began. “My first experience with aquatic biology was laying on my belly staring into the ponds looking at all the little bugs and algae that were swimming around,” he recalled in a 2012 interview.
The McGowan family moved during the Depression to Alhambra, a Los Angeles suburb, where John’s high school career was so lackluster, he didn’t graduate. Coincidentally, World War II began when he was a senior in high school and he joined the Navy. His assignment on an ammunition ship would leave him at anchor off small islands for weeks at a time. Curious about the life on the reefs surrounding the ship, he fashioned his own set of goggles using the safety glasses issued to paint scrapers on deck. He sealed the holes with beeswax to keep them watertight and dived as deep as the goggles would allow.
Later as a student at Scripps Oceanography, McGowan was one of the first members of campus to take dive training under Scripps’ first dive officer, Conrad Limbaugh. He joined the first wave of postwar researchers to incorporate scuba diving into ocean research.
During his decades at Scripps Oceanography, McGowan also studied coral reefs and the pearl shell fishery of Micronesia and established a system of marine reserves in Palau. He supervised the Scripps Oceanography Shore Station Program, the daily measurements of near-shore coastal temperatures and salinities along the Pacific Coast. In 1983 he started collecting a twice-weekly measurement of chlorophyll and phytoplankton at Scripps Pier which has now become a statewide network called the California Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring and Alert Program. In the 1950s, he also worked with Dan Brown to co-invent the bongo net, calling it that because of its resemblance to bongo drums. This net has become a standard sampling tool for researchers all over the world.
Much of McGowan’s overall focus was on the interplay among physical, chemical, and biological systems in the oceans. He established clear links between trends in climate and trends in ocean ecology and warned about the potential damage that global warming could bring. Among his more seminal papers is his 1963 analysis with Scripps Oceanography marine biologist Edward Fager linking plankton quantities with the characteristics of the water masses they occupied.
Researchers credit McGowan’s ability to look beyond his own field to identify such trends. He encouraged two students, one a marine biologist and the other a physical oceanographer, to compare data on zooplankton abundance off the California coast to physical conditions associated with El Niño. To the students’ surprise, the trends matched nearly perfectly. The two, Dudley Chelton and Patricio Bernal, co-wrote a paper on the correlation.
Chelton, now an emeritus physical oceanographer at Oregon State University, noted the prescience of the paper, which came out before the effects of El Niño outside of the eastern equatorial Pacific were understood.
McGowan “was really open to working with physical oceanographers and not all biologists were,” said Chelton, who noted that McGowan had been the last surviving member of his dissertation review committee. “He really understood the importance of the physical environment.”
McGowan's World War II service included tours of sea duty in the South and North Pacific. He was present as a young enlisted man in Tokyo Bay for Japan’s surrender in September 1945, but less than a decade later, he would meet Emperor Hirohito as part of a Scripps Oceanography science delegation. Hirohito himself was an amateur marine biologist.
McGowan attended Pasadena City College, then received B.S. and M.S. degrees (with help from the G.I. Bill) from Oregon State University and his PhD in Oceanography from Scripps Oceanography in 1960. He taught the “core course” in biological oceanography for more than 30 years and was the advisor for 21 PhD candidates. Former students and colleagues recalled that he was distinct from many of his contemporaries in championing female researchers, with several women among his students and technical staff.
One of those students was Mary Silver, an emerita professor of ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz. In her own career, Silver was a recipient of the Mary Sears Woman Pioneer in Oceanography Award for her own role in inspiring female marine science researchers. Without McGowan’s support, she said, that career might have never come to fruition. At the time of her student career in the 1960s, female researchers were largely barred from working on research vessels because of the opposition of their male colleagues and supervisors.
“I was one of the few women who was able to do work in the ocean because of him,” said Silver, who received her PhD from Scripps Oceanography in 1971. “He was a saint and very protective.”
Melissa Carter is the current program manager of the Shore Stations network at Scripps Oceanography that McGowan once supervised. The record of water temperature and salinity made at the network’s first station at Scripps Pier has been unbroken since 1916, in large part due to McGowan’s efforts from the 1980s through 2000, Carter said. The record is believed to be the longest continuously running dataset of Pacific Ocean conditions in existence.
“Ultimately if John hadn’t supported the daily measurements collected over the non-funded or ‘lean’ years, the ten-station network of long-term observations would have completely fallen apart and we would have a giant 20-year gap in some of the most important periods this program has collected data.”
McGowan was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Oregon State University, and a member of the Western Society of Naturalists, the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, Sigma Xi, and the Marine Biology Association of the United Kingdom.
John McGowan is survived by wife Vernie McGowan of Del Mar, Calif.; daughter Teresa McGowan and son-in-law Rob Auffrey of Somerville, Mass.; and daughter Kathleen McGowan and partner Parker Barnum of Berkeley, Calif.
Memorial services are pending.
Members of the research and Scripps Oceanography communities are invited to add tributes to John McGowan. Please submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Scripps Oceanography
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