Greetings from iainthepict. This blog of mine is meant to be like a 'Book of Days' or a kind of 'Scottish Year Book' if you will. The idea was to present an event for each day of the year. Somewhere in here, you can find out what happened, affecting Scotland and the Scots, on any given day of the year. Your comments and observations are very welcome.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Sir John Murray, the founder of modern oceanography

Sir John Murray, the founder of modern oceanography, died on the 16th of March, 1914.

There is no biography of Sir John Murray, but we know he was bred and born in Canada. However, his parents were Scottish emigrants and they saw the sense in sending him back to Scotland. That they did when Murray was aged seventeen, where he was educated under the auspices of his maternal grandfather. Importantly, however, Murray's abilities were honed on home soil, from where his talent found their outlet. Murray had a go at being a doctor at first, taking part in a whaling expedition as a ship's surgeon, but we can surmise that, having read Moby Dick, he had a change of heart. In any case, he didn't pursue life as a whaler beyond that one voyage, settling down instead to a career based on a gentlemanly study of zoology, geology and natural philosology – just kidding, that should be
natural philosophy, of course.

Sir John Murray is famous for having coined the term 'oceanography' to describe the science of the seas. In addition to coining the term for which he is justly recognised, Murray is also recognised as the founder of the eponymous modern marine science – the study of the earth's oceans and their interlinked ecosystems and chemical and physical processes. Murray's achievements were considerable. He was the first to recognise the existence of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and of marine or oceanic trenches. Murray also identified the presence of deposits, derived from the Saharan desert, in deep ocean clay sediments and spent ages mapping the distribution of carbonates, siliceous deposits and manganese nodules in the world's oceans, which work forms the basis of oceanic sedimentology. In addition, Murray's book, 'The Depths of the Ocean', co-written with Norwegian Johan Hjort, became a classic reference for oceanographers.

John Murray's first foray along the road to recognition came when he joined Charles Wyville Thomson’s crew of naturalists aboard 'HMS Challenger'. That was in December, 1872, when they sailed from Portsmouth, in a wee steam assisted corvette, to explore the world's deepest oceans. The survey led by Thomson set out to answer many of the basic questions about the physical and biological characteristics of those oceans. The team took depth soundings and Murray was placed in charge of mapping the shape of the ocean floor, which is what led to his identifying the existence of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Incidentally, samples taken from the deepest ocean regions during the voyage, led to the discovery of 4,000 new animal species.

Murray was actively involved in many scientific activities aboard the corvette and so much was his contribution valued that, three years later, at the end of the voyage, Thomson appointed Murray Assistant Director of the Challenger Commission. Ultimately, inheriting the responsibility after Thomson's death, it was Murray who took on the enormous task of editing the massive quantity of scientific data from the voyage, which task he completed in 1896. That comprehensive report, which had taken Murray more than twenty years to compile, stretched to more than fifty volumes and, after the Treasury ceased funding in 1889, had been completed at his personal expense, laid the foundations for almost every branch of modern oceanography.

Murray had become reasonably well off due to his development of phosphate mining on Christmas Island after being granted a lease in 1891. After discovering the rich deposits when he got a specimen from an ex-shipmate on the 'Challenger', Murray persuaded the British government to annex the island, which it did in 1887, and to grant him the lease.

In 1893, whilst he was still engaged in his mamoth oceanography study, Murray set up Britain's first Marine Laboratory at Granton, near Edinburgh. That research station later moved to Millport, becoming the Scottish Marine Station, which was the forerunner of what became the Scottish Marine Biological Association (SMBA) and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), at Dunstaffnage. Sir William Abbott Herdman, a Scottish marine zoologist and oceanographer, and contemporary of Murray's once wrote 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.” And it was all very much due to John Murray's dedicated efforts.

Murray's last major scientific contribution was to coordinate a hydrographic, bathymetric and sedimentology survey of 562 of Scotland's freshwater lochs. He carried out that work in 1897, after he'd finished the Challenger Report and it must've been a welcome diversion, in contrast to his intense work of the previous two decades. Included in the lochs he surveyed was Loch Ness, although Murray never found any trace of Nessie, but then again, nor has anyone else. The results of that survey were published in six volumes between 1905 and 1910.

John Murray was born on the 3rd of March, 1841, in Coburg, in Ontario. He travelled to Scotland in 1858, where he lived with his maternal gradfather, who sent him to study at Stirling High School and then, in 1864, on to Edinburgh University, ostensibly to study medicine. However, Murray left after a year of study under John Goodsir and his successor, William Turner, to join a whaling expedition to Spitsbergen. Now consider this; Murray boarded ship as its surgeon after barely a year studying medicine. Crikey! Murray, the 'quack doctor', returned to study at Edinburgh in 1868 and spent the next four years absorbing all that Sir Archibald Geikie and Peter Guthrie Tait had to say about zoology, geology and natural philosophy. However, Murray never graduated from Edinburgh University, but that neither detered nor hindered him in his achievements.

According to Wikipedia and other sourcees, Sir John Murray was killed when his car overturned near his home at Kirkliston, Edinburgh, on the 16th of March, 1914. Interestingly and in contrast, in a 1999 article on John Murray and the John Murray Laboratories at the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh, by Brian Price, Murray was killed by a motor car as he crossed Frederick Street, in Edinburgh. At least, it's accurate to say he was killed in an automobile accident. Sir John Murray was buried in Dean Kirkyard, Edinburgh and most of his mining fortune was bequethed to subsidise oceanographic research.


  1. As a long time resident of Cobourg, Ontario, I have always boasted about Sir John Murray to others and met with blank stares. Cobourg has nothing to note the most important individual ever born in my town.

    1. Perhaps you should get up a petition to place a blue plaque on the door his birthplace, assuming it still stands and can be identified. I fear that wouldn't be the case, though, unless you can find a like minded soul with a good memory. Thanks for posting a comment, it's much appreciated. Kind Regards, IanC

  2. Do you know if John Murray had any connection with India? He seems to have visited Darjeeling at least, and to have owned some Indian/Tibetan objects...

    1. Hi Rosina, I don't know for sure, but this might give a clue: the Challenger voyage didn't reach India, so I'd safely assume he never visited India. He did develop phosphate mining on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, but that's a long way from India.

    2. Thanks anyway. The mystery continues! A note survives recording an artefact he purchased in Darjeeling in November 1908, but there's no context for his being there...

    3. I guess it's feasible. He completed his Bathymetrical Survey of the Fresh-Water Lochs of Scotland in 1906, but I imagine he was concerned with its publication (1910) between times, rather than jaunting off to India.

  3. A little late, but FYI the Times of London reports (in great detail) the accident in which Murray was killed. Not on Frederick Street, but in his car near Granton; his daughter was driving and rendered unconscious. They quote an eyewitness, one William Miller who is described as a 'sea scout patrol leader.' See the Times archives from March 17 and 18, 1914.