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Happy Birthday Dr. Spilhaus

Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus (1911-1998). Photo by Brisco C. Amer. Hist.

Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus (1911-1998)

The beautiful thing about science is not all the things we know, but all the things we donít know. To a scientist, the only things worth explaining are the hitherto inexplicable. The only things worth doing are the truly impossible.

When Walter Cronkite was asked who the most interesting person he had interviewed was, he replied, "You may not have heard of him, but his name was Athelstan Spilhaus."

Colorful, sharp-thinking, highly innovative, and intensely productive, Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus (1911-1998) was, among other things, the "Father of Sea Grant." Spilhaus first presented the idea of Sea Grant Colleges at an American Fisheries Society meeting in Minneapolis in 1963 and then tirelessly advocated for it until it became a federally funded reality three years and three months later.

Even though he is gone, his unconventional personality and notable contributions to the United States are worth remembering. Appointed by presidents and advisor to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, his breathtakingly diverse accomplishments include the skyways in Minneapolis, a sculpture in New York City, and the successful science exhibition at the Seattle World's Fair.

Spilhaus's instrument for measuring ocean conditions became so important during World War II that Winston Churchill wrote him a letter thanking him for inventing it. You can see early sketches of this instrument, the bathythermograph, on the Wall of Discovery at the University of Minnesota, where Spilhaus was Dean of the Institute of Technology (now the College of Science and Engineering) from 1949 until he left in a huff 18 years later.

Minnesota Sea Grant is honoring Dr. Spilhaus in Minneapolis on November 1, not far from the building where he once presided over faculty meetings. The South African-born Spilhaus would have been puffing out 100 birthday candles on November 25, 2011. You are invited to his birthday commemoration, A Salute to Lake Superior's Sustainable Fisheries. Tickets are available through the University of Minnesota bookstore for $10.

Keeping tomorrow in mind,
Sharon Moen

Expect to see Moen's With Tomorrow in Mind, a biography about the flamboyant Dr. Spilhaus, in the upcoming year. Moen writes, "When I began this biography four years ago, I had a vague notion of Athelstan Spilhaus as an oceanographer who somehow became misplaced in Minnesota. Now, I am keenly aware of what others grasped before me and what a generation may forget: Spilly was 'a genius,' the 'ocean community's Michelangelo,' and the 'flywheel of the machine of American science.'"


By Sharon Moen
October 2011

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