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Employee Portrait Gallery—Betty Bunce

spacer Employee Portrait of the Week - Betty Bunce

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Betty Bunce takes a break in the Atlantis II main lab during a 1977 cruise. Once she broke the woman-at-sea barrier, Betty spent a lot of time on ships, often as chief scientist. She was also the first woman to serve as co-chief scientist for the Deep Sea Drilling Program in the Indian Ocean aboard Glomar Challenger Leg 24 in 1974. (Photo by Vicky Cullen)


Words used to describe Betty Bunce at a celebration of her life in 2004 included: irascible, impossible, stubborn, extremely funny and generous, forthright, strong-minded, and unforgettable. Indeed, only a strong-minded woman could have done what she did when she did it. She came to her scientific profession as an untrained adult, mastered it, and led the way to sea for women oceanographers.

Betty’s objective when she came to Woods Hole in the summer of 1944 was to visit a friend working at WHOI. Wartime security only allowed employees and job applicants onto the Bigelow Lab floor where her friend was working, so she applied for a job and got a tour. An electronics course she had taken caught the personnel director’s eye, and she spent the rest of the summer in the underwater explosives group. Then she fulfilled her fall semester’s commitment to teaching physical education at a New Jersey prep school before returning to WHOI in January 1945.

Betty majored in government, history, and economics at Smith College, graduating in 1937. She then capitalized on her athletic interest (she competed in soccer, fencing, basketball, field hockey, and lacrosse) in order to be sure she could support herself. She completed a certificate in physical education in 1941. Her experience at WHOI piqued an interest in physics (“I wanted to understand the work I’d been doing,” she said), and she went back to Smith for a master’s degree in physics (“I never spent a tougher year in my life”). Later, in the thick of seismic work in Brackett Hersey’s WHOI geophysics group, she took a correspondence course in geophysics from the University of California. The rest of her education was earned on the job. Smith College awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1971.

Betty’s research interests included crustal structure, marine seismology, reflection and refraction, and underwater acoustics associated with seafloor studies. In 1959, she was the first WHOI woman to go to sea for more than a daytrip. She was also the first woman to serve as chief scientist on an American oceanographic vessel. Both of those trips were aboard WHOI’s R/V Bear. She served as acting chair of the Geology & Geophysics Department more than once.

Mike Purdy, long-time WHOI staff member and Bunce colleague, now director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, wrote, “The early character and work ethic of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the place today that women scientists rightfully hold in oceanography, are due in no small part to Betty’s example. She was great, she was fun—she was a kind and beautiful human being. The world has benefited in so many ways from her life.”












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