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Murray, John


(b. Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, 3 March 1841; d. Kirkliston, Scotland, 16 March 1914)

oceanography, marine geology.

As editor (after C. Wyville Thomson’s death) of the fifty-volume Report on the Scientific Results of the Vorage of H.M.S. Challenger During the Years 1872–1876 (London, 1880–1895; reprinted New York, 1966) and coauthor (with Johan Hjort) of The Depths of the Ocean (London, 1912), Murray presided over the organization of oceanography as a separate science. His most significant personal contribution was the mapping and classification of the sediments on the ocean bottom.

Raised “on the plains of Canada which lie between the great lakes of Erie, Huron, and Ontario”(J. L. Graham, p. 173), to which his parents, Robert and Elizabeth (Macfarlane) Murray, migrated in 1834, John Murray first saw the ocean when he sailed to their native Scotland at age seventeen. This voyage and his first glimpse of the rise and fall of the tide along the Scottish coast was the beginning of his lifelong interest in the ocean. His maternal grand- father, for whom he founded a natural history museum at Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire, sent him to Stirling High School and the University of Edinburgh, where he studied medicine with John Goodsir and his successor, William Turner. In 1868 he sailed on the whaler Jan Mayen from Peterhead to Spitzbergen and the Arctic, returning with a large collection of marine organisms and observations on currents, temperatures, and sea ice. Murray then returned to Edinburgh to enter the physical laboratory of P. G. Tait. Marine biology was left for vacations, when Murray, Laurence Pullar, and the anatomist Morison Watson would hire a fishing boat from which to dredge along the rugged Scottish coast.

Murray’s days as a gentleman-student (he took no examination or degree) ended in 1872. Tait and Sir William Thomson (who in a chance encounter with Murray aboard his yacht, was impressed by Murray’s knowledge of the sea) recommended him to C. Wyville Thomson, regius professor of natural history at Edinburgh and scientific director of the voyage of circumnavigation which the Royal Society was organizing for the British navy. Murray spent the next three and a half years aboard H.M.S. Challenger. At thirty-one he was the oldest of Thomson’s four scientific assistants. Less clearly bent on a scientific career than the two younger naturalists, Henry N. Moseley and Rudolph von Willemoes-Suhm (the fourth assistant, John Y. Buchanan, was a chemist), Murray took over, perhaps by default, the newest of the Challenger expedition’s scientific quests: investi- gating the deposits on the sea bottom.

Of the major sedimentary types, only globigerina ooze had been named prior to Murray’s work aboard Challenger, and there was no agreement whether the organisms whose calcareous skeletons made up this deposit lived at the surface or the bottom. By his careful towing of fine nets to catch living specimens, Murray proved that they were surface dwellers, confirming the earlier view of J. W. Bailey. Murray also collected the surface-living forms whose skeletons made up the other major organic sediment types, which he named radiolarian, diatom, and pteropodoozes. The most widespread deposit was a brownish, largely inorganic mud. Murray named it red clay, showed that it originated mainly from volcanic dust, and deduced that it covered those parts of the deep ocean where calcareous skeletons were so few that they had almost all dissolved, an explanation that still stands. Murray’s work with the sediments he collected demonstrated conclusively the surprising slowness of deposition over much of the ocean. Murray increased considerably the collection of pelagic animals by towing at depths the nets previously used only at the surface. He also took charge of the small collection of vertebrates.

Murray combined exceptional organizing skill with a strong desire to stake out new scientific territory. When Thomson’s scientific staff was disbanded in 1877 shortly after the return of the Challenger, Murray stayed on to help Thomson set up, in Edinburgh, the Challenger Expedition Commission, charged with preparing a report in five years. With Thomson and Alexander Agassiz, Murray sorted into groups the contents of 600 cases of specimens, each group to be the subject of a specialist’s monograph. Thomson’s health soon gave way under the combined pressures of teaching, public lecturing, and accounting personally to the British Treasury for the Challenger Report. He died early in 1882 as the grant expired; printing had barely begun.

Pressed by the Royal Society, the Treasury appointed Murray as Thomson’s successor with another five-year grant, increased by 20 percent. Murray distributed those specimens which remained in Edinburgh, hounded his dilatory authors, and saw their contributions through the press. When the Treasury tried to halt the project in 1889, with the Report still unfinished after a year’s extension to his original five, Murray fought back. He saved the Report, but the Treasury paid him only a small lump sum for the editorial work from 1889 to 1895; he thus must have been put to considerable personal expense. Among the final volumes of the Challenger Report, which might otherwise have failed of publi- cation, were Murray’s masterly two-volume Summary (1895) and the volume on Deep-Sea Deposits (1891), written with Alphonse Renard of the University of Ghent.

Murray did not neglect his own researches, even during the years he traveled around Europe to prod his authors and edited the thousands of manuscript pages they sent him. Cruises in Knight Errant (1880) and Triton (1882) enabled him and his Challenger shipmate, Commander Thomas Tizard, to confirm, by their discovery of the Wyville Thomson ridge, Thomson’s proposed solution to the problem of faunal distribution at the bottom of the Faroe-Shetland channel.

Murray’s study of coral reefs led him to challenge Charles Darwin’s widely accepted notion that they were universally built up on subsiding island bases. Murray suggested instead that reef building could begin when deposition brought a submerged base close enough to the surface for corals to grow, so that uplift rather than subsidence could be the dominant mechanism in some localities. In Murray’s view the reef grew seaward on a talus of dead shells, while the retardation of coral growth away from the sea and the solvent action of seawater on the dead coral accounted for the formation of lagoons. Although his views have not stood up, Murray stimulated much contemporary debate, especially after the eighth duke of Argyll charged that only Darwin’s great name had prevented the replacement of his theory by Murray’s. Murray stimulated the long series of reef explorations by his friend Alexander Agassiz, and with another friend, Robert Irvine, Murray studied the deposition of carbonate and silicate by organisms and the compo- sition of manganese nodules. In 1886, working from a few samples of rocks and deep-ocean sediments, Murray deduced that the Antarctic ice sheet must be underlain by continental rocks. He was one of the strongest advocates of the renewal of polar exploration which began about 1900. His 1888 estimates of the proportion of the ocean floor at different depths, based on rope and wire soundings, have not been much altered by the incalculably greater number of soundings provided since the 1920’s by the sonic fathometer.

Murray and Renard’s 1891 volume, Deep Sea Deposits, in the Challnenger Report, was the first treatment of its subject for the entire ocean. Murray and Renard classified and named the major sediment types, delineated their provinces, and provided their successors with most of their subsequent research problems, including the origin of glauconite and manganese nodules. From his comparison of marine sediments with the sedimentary rocks found on land, Murray came to a firm belief that the ocean basins have been a persistent feature of the surface of the earth throughout geologic time. To the International Congress of Zoology meeting in Leiden in 1895, Murray gave the classic statement of the relations between the physical conditions of life and the faunal and floral provinces of the ocean.

In spite of his commitments to the Challenger Report and his own researches for it, Murray also found time to use his organizational skills in other areas. From 1883 to 1894 he dredged on the east and west coasts of Scotland in Medusa, a specially equipped

steam yacht. He founded marine stations at Granton and Millport; the latter is still in operation. Murray was also a founder of the short-lived meteorological obseruitory atop Ben Nevis. He served as a scientific member of the Fishery Board for Scotland, and he represented the British government at the 1899 Stockholm conference, which founded the Internation- al Council for the Exploration of the Sea. After the Challenger Report was completed in 1895, Murray organized a survey of the freshwater lochs of Scotland with Frederick Pullar, carrying it to completion (6 vols., 1910) after the latter’s drowning.

Murray was able to continue his scientific career after the dissolution of the Challenger Expedition Commission in 1889 because of the independence provided by his marriage (1889) to Isabel Henderson, the only daughter of a Glasgow shipowner. His fortune was further increased by his development of phosphate mining on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean. Murray discovered the island’s rich deposits when a small specimen was sent to him by a Challenger shipmate. He persuaded the British government to annex the island in 1887 and to grant him a lease in 1891. Phosphate exploitation began in earnest about 1900; Murray used his substantial profits to support both a new “Challenger Office”at his home outside Edinburgh and the four-month cruise of the Norwegian fisheries’ vessel Michael Sars in 1910. The general account by Murray and Johan Hjort of his voyage became the leading textbook of oceanography for three decades after its publication in 1912, and the small volume The Ocean, written by Murray himself and published in 1913, served as a popular intro- duction to the subject. Murray died in an automobile accident in 1914, leaving most of his mining fortune to subsidize oceanographic research.


I. Original Works. A complete list of Sir John Murray’s scientific writings is given in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 35 (1914–1915), 313–317. Murray’s major works are his coral-reef theory, “On the Structure and Origin of Coral Reefs and Islands,”ibid., 10 (1880), 505–518, and the volume on Deep Sea Deposits (Edinburgh, 1891), in Challenger Reports, written with A. Renard. Of primary biographical material, the most important items are the bound volume of outgoing letters and the corrected copy of Murray’s autobiography (in the form of an obituary booklet); both are in the Mineralogical Library of the British Museum (Natural History). The 126 letters to Alexander Agassiz in the Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, and the typescript narrative of the Christmas Island phosphate industry in the possession of the Murray family, are also important. Additional material is in the Public Record Office and the Royal Society.

II. Secondary Literature. There is no biography of Murray. In its absence one must turn to the general histories of oceanography: Margaret Deacon, Scientists and the Sea 1650–1900 (London, 1971), and Susan Schlee, To the Edge of an Unfamiliar World (New York, 1973), and to the obituary articles: G. R. Agassiz, in Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 52 (1917), 853–859; J. Graham Kerr, in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 35 (1914–1915), 305–317; Robert C. Mossman in Symons’s Meteororological Magazine, 49 (1914), 45–47; and Sir Arthur Shipley, in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 89B (1915–1916),vi-xv, and in Coruhill Magazine, 34 (1914), 627–636. The latter is reprinted in Shipley’s Studies in Insect Life and Other Essays (London, 1917). There are reminiscences by Murray himself in J. Lascelles Graham, “Old Boys”and Their Stories of the High School of Stirling (Slirling, 1900); other reminiscences are included in Hugh R. Mill, An Autobiography (London, 1951), 43–44; Laurence Pullar, Lengthening Shadows (privately printed, 1910), passim; and A. L. Turner, Sir William Turner (Edinburgh, 1919), 496. A recent summary is William N. Boog Watson, “Sir John Murray—A Chronic Student,”in University of Edinburgh Journal, 23 (1967), 123–138.

Harold L. Burstyn

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Murray, John

John Murray, 1741–1815, founder of the Universalist denomination in America, b. England. He was excommunicated by the Methodists after he had openly accepted Universalism as taught by James Relly (see Universalist Church of America). Murray emigrated to America in 1770 where, after traveling as a Universalist preacher for four years in New Jersey, New York, and New England, he settled in Gloucester, Mass. He continued his preaching there and in nearby centers. In 1775, General Washington announced Murray's appointment as chaplain to the Rhode Island troops. He served as pastor of the newly organized Independent Church of Christ (1779) at Gloucester until he was called to the pastorate of the Universalist Society of Boston in 1793.

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"Murray, John." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 24 Jun. 2017 <>.

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