BiologyComicScienceScience & Nature

Gotta Formalin ’em All: The Marine Biology of Eugenie Clark, The Shark Lady. (Women in Science 42)

To the uninitiated, there seems a dizzying amount of carnage wrapped up in advancing biological knowledge. Every scrap of information that we have about the function of an unknown organ or curious behavior of an obscure species is usually bought in the coin of death. Sometimes, that knowledge lets us protect the whole species better by giving us insight into the interaction of animal with environment. But often, it simply fills in a blank in a database or makes for a bullet point in a request for further funding. To fully know a species, scientists often have to be almost gruesomely cruel to various of its members, a wedding of wide-eyed curiosity with grim methodology that fueled the life and work of Eugenie Clark (1922-2015), the Shark Lady.

Clark was a human destined for the sea. Her father died when she was young, and her working mother would deposit the young girl at the local aquarium during her shifts. For hours, she would stare at the fish and imagine herself walking the bottom of the ocean. She talked her mother into buying her an aquarium as an early Christmas present, and soon had a locally famous collection of fish and reptiles stuffed into every corner of their small apartment.

Childhood also carried the first signs that Clark would deal well with the gaping divide between awe and clinical detachment needed to be a marine biologist. She loved her collection of fish, but also loved seafood and especially the sashimi of her mother’s native Japan, a seeming disconnect between empathy and appetite that continued for the rest of her career. Her memoirs, in a manner typical for the age, are full of accounts of magnificent animals which she proceeds to hunt, kill, and consume after praising their rarity and fragile beauty.

That tendency became instinct as she worked her way through college courses and their requisite desensitizing dissections. It was accepted as a matter of course at the time (this is the mid Forties) that, if it might solve a puzzle of biology, any sacrifice was worthwhile, and Clark had such an excitable curiosity that it didn’t take too much prodding to convince her that what she did was not only scientifically necessary, but even romantic and adventurous.



Largely because it was. After college, she was given a grant to study poisonous fish in the South Pacific, a lone woman traveling from island to island, being shown the secret spots of each coral reef by the local fishermen while engaging with the peculiarities of each tribal culture at a time just before they were entirely ruined by the dual juggernauts of Christianity and Marketing. With a simple spear in hand, she would go on a dizzying hunt for rare varieties, her excitement in the chase overriding all other concerns, and indeed, reading her brisk memoirs, it’s hard not to get excited with her.

At least, until one comes to a passage like, “I had had experience poisoning tide pools with Dr. Hubbs in California nearly three years before. But this was the first time I was to try it alone. I hoped I would remember how to do it correctly.” This sort of casual mass murder of a miniature ecosystem was simply how science was done in the age before the Second Ecological Awakening, but it doesn’t make the passage any less chilling to the casual reader, even if the result was a more thorough catalogue of South Sea fish than had ever been attempted before.

Regardless, the romance continued as, from the South Sea, she transferred to Egypt to study the fish of the Red Sea, noting their similarities with the species she catalogued thousands of miles away. Speaking Arabic with the local population, she was accepted as readily and easily as she had been by the villagers of the South Pacific. The exotic locales where she worked, her own unique position as a female aquatic hunter amongst primarily paternalistic native societies, and the verve of her personality all combined in 1951 in The Lady with the Spear, a book that gave Clark an international reputation as an adventurer-scientist, and shone attention on the startling world of marine research.

The book earned fans from the Emperor of Japan to the Vanderbilt family, and the latter in particular sought her out to help them found a new marine research station in Florida. From a ramshackle building on skids, Clark and a group of unlikely rag-tag locals slowly constructed one of the pre-eminent marine facilities in the nation, the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory. Crusty Hemingway-esque fishermen, crazy talented adolescents, giant skin divers, all of them contributed their resources and expertise under Clark’s informed supervision to create a place where sharks and other Floridian marine life could be intensively studied.

Their methods were almost unspeakably crude at first. Here is her description of how they brought the sharks they caught on their shark line back to the research facility. Fair warning, it makes for pretty unpleasant reading:

“One of the most extraordinary sharks I ever got to know was one I gave up for dead… We towed this shark by the hook she had taken in her mouth and firmly set in her jaw. It was a rough day. She was bounced on large waves in the Gulf, and once we got her in the bay, we had to drag her across shallow barnacle flats because of the low tide. All the time, her mouth was being held open by the hook and towline, and water poured into her.

“She struggled weakly when we first found her caught on the line. By the time we had her in the large fish pen alongside the Lab’s dock, she appeared dead. We tried to revive her … but she didn’t respond.

“We finally gave up. It was too late in the day to hoist her onto the dock to weigh, measure, and dissect her. So we tied her limp form alongside the dock, still with the hook and side line in her mouth, and left, intending to work on her the next morning.”

Eugenie Clark, 2006. (Photo: John Pendygraft)

Clark estimated that she experimented upon and dissected thousands of sharks in her time at the Laboratory, sometimes sharing out the pieces with fellow researchers (one was particularly keen on the liver, another on parasites feasting on different parts of the shark’s body), but often with an eye to solving her pet riddle of the role of the shark’s abdominal pores. She never did figure out what those were for, a sobering counterpoint to, say, the ultimately successful sacrifice of monkeys in the search for a polio cure, that it does well to keep in mind when we talk abstractly about the moral cost of research.

In particular, what Clark’s story lets us consider is the mammal-centric species-ism to which I think we’re all prone. In another section of her second set of memoirs, she describes a hunt for a giant manta ray, a behemoth some twenty feet in wingspan which was a marvel of the sea. Her team fired harpoons into it and then linked together two heavy boats on a line attached to its harpoon wound in an attempt to tire it out and ultimately kill it. That attempt failed, and they headed out the next day to hunt a smaller ray, this time bringing guns to make sure that the job got finished. Except it didn’t and the poor creature was demonstrably still alive as they were dissecting it, and they knew it, and kept hacking away all the same, watching the massive beating heart as they pulled the animal apart. Were their prey a giraffe or an elephant or even a deer, we’d be rightly horrified at the glee with which the impressive animal was chased down and then vivisected, but because it’s a sea animal, the indignation doesn’t run as hot, and that’s curious.

Clark and her staff eventually developed better ways of transporting and maintaining sharks and other marine life, with some significant results, particularly in animal psychology and learning. Before Clark, the common notion was that sharks, as a more ancient life form, had correspondingly unimpressive intelligences. But through a series of training exercises and experiments, Clark’s team was able to demonstrate the capacity of this animal to remember, plan, and adapt to variations in its routine, all denoting a higher intellectual capacity than anybody had reason to expect.

Beyond her work categorizing the plectognath fish of the South Pacific and Red Sea regions, and her behavioral studies of the sharks of Florida, Clark documented the impact of Florida’s waterfront building craze on the local marine life and coordinated with dozens of scientists who wished to use her increasingly sophisticated facilities. The Cape Haze Marine Laboratory outgrew its first home and became the Mote Marine Laboratory, which is still in operation today, supporting original research and environmental education, and Eugenie Clark kept an office there into her eighties.

Were Clark’s methods unnecessarily invasive? Judged from the point of view of her era’s scientific culture, decidedly not. What she did, from the mass poisoning of tide pool life to what was essentially the waterboarding and vivisection of sharks, was standard procedure, and it’s to Clark’s credit that she bothered at all to develop new and more humane ways of carrying out her research. She saw that how things were done was problematic, and worked to make improvements. The same cannot be said of many of her colleagues. By making people excited about ocean life and its variety and dignity, she created a generation which would develop the humane cataloguing methods of today, which were outside the comprehension and technology of her scientific community. She engendered the excitement that made possible the change, and that is perhaps enough.
FURTHER READING: Clark’s two memoirs, if you can get over the puzzling excitement at making a sport out of killing something you supposedly love, are fascinating and great fun. Lady with a Spear (1951) is the tale of her time studying plectognaths in the Pacific and is as much an anthropological tale as an ichthyologic one. The Lady and the Sharks (1968, updated 2010) is about the founding of her Marine Laboratory, and the local characters are interesting, but perhaps the real story is that of how a young, shoe-string scientific center finds itself coping with growth and success.

Related Articles


  1. In the third-last paragraph, are you still talking about sharks? They aren’t mammals.

  2. Yup, that’s supposed to be Animals there. I have entirely no idea what it isn’t. Maybe some unconscious rhyming generator took hold. Yes, that’s the most likely explanation. At the very least, I’m happy to see that somebody actually read to the third to last paragraph!! Hurrah! – Dale

Leave a Reply

Check Also
Back to top button