John Steele, 86; oceanographer led Woods Hole

John H. Steele was praised for adroitly applying his skills as a mathematician to the study of marine ecosystems.
John H. Steele was praised for adroitly applying his skills as a mathematician to the study of marine ecosystems.(1984 FILE/BOSTON GLOBE)

Oceanographer John H. Steele once said he chose a career in marine research in large part because he wanted to spend more time “messing about in boats.”

Trained as a mathematician, he enjoyed bouncing around the North Atlantic in small ships for decades before he took the helm of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1977.

Through his combined passions of boating and making calculations, Dr. Steele helped transform oceanography by applying math to the study of marine ecosystems.

“John Steele was indeed a giant in our field,” said John Cullen, a professor of oceanography at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “He established the foundations of modern oceanographic research that routinely uses simulation models to examine how the ocean responds to climate change, fisheries pressure, and the like.”


Dr. Steele, who directed the institution for 12 years, died of cancer Nov. 4 in his Falmouth home. He was 86.

“Known for being shy and humble, he seemed uncomfortable taking credit for his brilliant work,” said Cullen, who videotaped interviews with Dr. Steele before his death. “His contributions were not about him, but about knowledge. And his contributions to knowledge were huge.”

Dr. Steele led Woods Hole during a period of intense international focus. In 1985, a team of Woods Hole researchers led by Robert Ballard joined forces with French oceanographers and discovered the wreck of the Titanic, which sank in 1912 in the North Atlantic.

“Finding the Titanic is a dramatic demonstration of our present capability to explore the ocean depths for scientific purposes,” Dr. Steele announced in 1985. “It has taken years of work by dedicated engineers and will prove its value to science and the nation in the years ahead.”

While Dr. Steele recognized the benefit to oceanography from the vast publicity surrounding images of the doomed ship at the bottom of the sea, his primary interest was in scientific discoveries about marine ecosystems, colleagues said.


His 1974 book, “The Structure of Marine Ecosystems,” defined his career when he shared his mathematical approach using actual data, much of it collected in the North Sea, and discussed the problems of various simulation models.

“He was a scholar foremost,” said Andrew Solow, director of the Marine Policy Center at the oceanographic institution.

While he was the director at Woods Hole, Dr. Steele oversaw its evolution into a more formal academic structure.

“He elevated the standards for scholars,’’ Solow said.

Dr. Steele also had a keen wit. “He would show this little glint of humor and steel, that he wasn’t a pushover,” Solow said.

Excellence in scientific research was Dr. Steele’s priority, according to John W. Farrington, dean emeritus of the institution.

“John came with a stellar reputation as a scientific researcher and scholar,” Farrington said in an e-mail. “His scientific reputation continued to grow while he was director.’’

Born in Edinburgh in 1926, Dr. Steele started college at age 16 during World War II and graduated in 1946 with a degree in mathematics from University College, London.

He served in the Royal Air Force, for which he conducted research in aeronautical mechanics and acquired a passion for sailing, slipping out with friends to sail across the Channel to France, according to his family.

After his military service ended in 1951, Dr. Steele was hired at a fisheries management lab in Aberdeen, Scotland.


He began work in Woods Hole in the late 1950s, thanks to funding from the Atomic Energy Commission, he noted in a 1997 essay about his career for the journal Oceanography.

Government funding was plentiful until the end of the Cold War, when intense competition for research grants began, he wrote, lamenting how those battles fractured a sense of community.

“I am often asked if I am glad that I was a working oceanographer in the expansive period of the 1960s and 1970s,” he wrote. “The answer is: Yes, it was great fun then. Perhaps it is not so much fun now, but the science is even more exciting. And oceanography is well placed to adapt its culture to meet the new compacts with society.”

His awards included the Alexander Agassiz Medal from the US National Academy of Sciences in 1973 for his contributions to oceanography.

He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and named a fellow of the Royal Society of London. He received a doctorate from University College in 1963.

Away from work, Dr. Steele enjoyed golfing at the Woods Hole country club and taking his friends sailing.

“He was good company,” said his wife, Evelyn, to whom he was married for 57 years. They hosted many gatherings of scientists at their home on Cape Cod and at their cottage in Scotland.

Their son, Hugh of Henley-on-Thames, England, said Dr. Steele was a true intellectual who read widely and had a deep interest in world politics, literature, art, and travel. His knowledge “coupled with his wit, humor, and modesty always made him a fascinating conversationalist and catalyst in any discussion,” Hugh said.


In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Steele leaves two grandsons.

A memorial service at Woods Hole will be announced.

Dr. Steele returned full time to research after stepping down as director at Woods Hole.

“I would guess that, for most of us, oceanography is both a vocation and a career,” he wrote in the 1997 essay in Oceanography.

In recent years, he worked with oceanographer Dian Gifford of the University of Rhode Island on a grant proposal and wrote several papers.

“He was a low-key person, very modest, very witty,” Gifford said. “He was one of the kindest people I ever met. He was generous in sharing credit for joint work and he encouraged so many young scientists and colleagues from all nations during his career.”

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at