Obituary: John Steele, 86, Titanic oceanographer

Oceanographer John Steele was an inspired scientist. Picture: contributed
Oceanographer John Steele was an inspired scientist. Picture: contributed
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A RENOWNED Edinburgh-born oceanographer who led the first research team to the wreckage of the Titanic has died in the United States.

John Steele, 86, died after losing a battle with cancer at his adopted home in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Born in Edinburgh on November 15, 1926, he was educated at George Watson’s Boys’ College and later attended University College London.

After graduating in 1946, he worked as a specialist in aeronautical mechanics at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Helensburgh.

In 1951, he found a job at the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, which was responsible for fisheries management.

However, Mr Steele soon realised that it was important to understand the broader ocean environment.

His initial research, with Valentine Worthington, focused on the measurement of ocean currents, but his interest later turned towards understanding the microscopic organisms that form the basis of marine food chains.

He was appointed director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1977 and served it dutifully until 1989, playing a central role in the development of international oceanographic projects.

In particular, his work focused on the part played by oceans in climate change.

It was in this job that Mr Steele presided over the American underwater research team which discovered the wreck of the Titanic on September 1, 1985.

Although he did not personally take part in the expedition, he was in charge of the institution’s team of marine researchers under US Navy officer Robert Ballard.

The team, in conjunction with its French counterparts, found the liner on the Atlantic seabed 73 years after it sank, more than 13 miles from her last known location. But while the discovery of the Titanic was undoubtedly a notable achievement, it was by no means the single defining moment of Mr Steele’s career.

He published a book in 1974, titled The Structure of Marine Ecosystems, which is now regarded as the oceanographer’s bible.

And his work studying the dynamics of small marine systems in Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland serves as a template for the understanding of broader ocean processes.

Mathematical tools Mr Steele developed are still used in the science of fisheries management today.

After his retirement in 1989, he continued his own research and served on numerous boards of organisations such as the Exxon corporation, where he was a marine environmental expert.

Mr Steele returned to Scotland regularly with his family to spend the summer holidays in their cottage outside Aberdeen.

He died on November 4 last year and is survived by his wife of 56 years, Evelyn, and their son, Hugh.