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Ruth Turner
Scientist, Underwater Pioneer

by Andrea Early, Special to the Harvard Community Resource

Photo of R.D. Turner

"Do what sets you on fire!"

That’s what Dr. Ruth Dixon Turner tells her students. Turner, 82, is a professor of biology, emeritus, in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, curator in malacology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), and a world-renowned marine biologist. She gives this advice confidently. She has been doing what sets her on fire at Harvard since 1944.

Her passion for her work has led her, in some cases, where few had gone before. Turner was the first woman to take a turn in Alvin, the deep-sea submersible owned and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) on Cape Cod. In 1976, she became one of Harvard’s first tenured women professors. In 1992, Turner—who continued to SCUBA dive until well into her 70s—received the Diver of the Year Award from the Boston Sea Rovers, an organization whose members include underwater filmmakers Stan Waterman and Al Giddings, as well as Jacques Cousteau and Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard. And earlier this year, she was named Woman Pioneer in Oceanography by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, an award given only once before—to Turner’s long-time hero, Mary Sears, also of Harvard.

So what is the object of the passion that has taken Turner so far in life? Clams.

But not just any clams. Turner has spent her career studying shipworms, wood-boring bivalves wreak that havoc on docks and boats, creating dangerous conditions for the maritime shipping industry. Her work on these clams has taken her all over the map, and, so to speak, beneath it.

Photo: Ruth Turner boards the DSRV AlvinBeing the first woman on the Alvin sub was not Turner’s main objective, when she took her first dive on it in 1971, but it was certainly a big deal to other scientists involved.

"I can remember staring out of the sub’s window and casually asking Al Vine, (the Alvin submarine’s namesake and designer) ‘What day is today?‚’" says Turner. "He turned to me and answered, ‘It’s Friday the 13th and here we are taking down the first woman!’" But Turner found what she was looking for: proof of the existence of a deep-sea species of shipworms.

Turner has over 100 publications to her credit, primarily on shipworms—the aquatic equivalent of termites. She is currently working on a new monograph on deep borers, as well as An Illustrated Key to the Gastropods of New England.

Thanks to her meticulous study of the life cycle and distribution of these species, scientists have developed methods for controlling the damage they do to shipwrecks, wooden vessels, piers and docks all over the world. It's no surprise that the US Navy has frequently consulted Turner for help in controlling the devastation of their fleet and dockage areas caused by shipworms. The Office of Naval Research has been sponsoring Turner's research for over thirty years.

Following a Love of Research, Not Firsts

Turner discounts any implications that her accomplishments are more remarkable because she was one of only a few women in the male-dominated research and university world of the 1940s and 1950s. "I just really didn’t give it a whole lot of thought," she says. "I was too busy doing my work."

Indeed, her success has come as a result of old-fashioned elbow grease and perseverance. She worked her way though Bridgewater State Teacher’s College by taking odd jobs such as cleaning. She parlayed several years of teaching salary into a master’s degree in ornithology at Cornell. Turner eventually came to Harvard to work in the Ornithology Department at the MCZ and to earn her Ph.D. in biology from Radcliffe.

It was around that time that she met Dr. William Clench, the MCZ’s curator of mollusks. "He invited me to join his department for lunch one day and I quickly became interested in mollusks," she says, "and besides, things were not going well in the bird department."

Turner attributes much of her success at Harvard to Clench’s modern attitude toward women and to his role as a friend and mentor. It was through him that she developed her interest in the wood-boring bivalves.

"The former curator of mollusks at the MCZ had left Harvard to set up a private lab to study shallow-water shipworms," she says. "Bill sent me there to help out. I had a background in systematics (genus and species classification) that I used when I studied birds and it transferred beautifully to mollusks."

Still, Turner does recall a brief time, when her participation in the thrice daily all-male smoking breaks on the front steps of the MCZ raised a few eyebrows. "A few people asked me what I thought I was doing there," she recalls. "But that quickly went away when they realized I was dead serious about my research and that I was doing good work and publishing."

Today, Turner still maintains an office and laboratory at the MCZ where she is finishing the text and illustrations for her next monograph. From the MCZ, she can also pursue one of her favorite pastimes—cajoling younger friends and colleagues to consider advanced degrees in the sciences.

"Ruth’s a big advocate of mentoring," says her long-time friend and research assistant Zachary Zevitas. "She’s always willing to drop what she’s doing to come up with projects that involve people."

Turner’s efforts even extend as far as providing free room and board in her home in Cambridge each semester to a needy undergraduate or graduate student.

Many of Turner’s attitudes on mentoring are a mixture of her own warmth and a promise she made to Clench. "When I asked Bill how I could ever return the kindness he’d given me, he said ‘You can’t. Just do it for the next generation.’"

Turner continues to keep her word. Ever the creative teacher, she even has her own home page on the World Wide Web at

But perhaps the best thing Turner has done for the next generation is that she’s paved the way for many by actively pursuing her scientific interests.

"I always say to my students, ‘Don’t ever try to do something that doesn’t interest you. If you do what you love, you’ll succeed.’ I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent with the biologists," says Turner, who loves to describe playing poker and smoking cigarettes with some of the world’s most renowned marine scientists. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of these informal experiences. I’ve gotten paid to do the things I’ve most wanted to do. What more can you ask?"

Reprinted from the July issue of the Harvard Community Resource
Copyright © 1996 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.
This document was prepared for publication on the World Wide Web by Science Network (Boston).

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