New book documents Scripps Oceanography’s founding, ‘golden age’ and present day research

"Images of America: Scripps Institution of Oceanography" will be available for purchase through Arcadia Publishing.
(Courtesy of Arcadia Publishing)

When the Scripps Institution of Oceanography was founded more than a century ago, the term “oceanography” as we know it barely existed. Since then, the institution has gone on to also redefine what was possible in the realm of military operations and the concept of climate change research — all under the auspices of UC San Diego.

To document its storied past, the latest in the “Images of America” books series will focus on La Jolla’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, with release set for Monday, June 7. The paperback, 128-page tome tells the story of the institution that thrust the budding field of oceanography into the forefront of science in the early 20th century.

“I think there are people in La Jolla who don’t 100 percent know what we do, so I would hope they would find this to be a fun read,” said author and SIO communications officer Robert Monroe. “Since the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has a global name, we would hope this would be of interest to anyone interested in science and the history of climate change research. But the books are locally focused, so locals could find this interesting.”

SIO’s history dates back to 1891, when William Ritter joined the faculty of UC Berkeley. “Fascinated by the vast unknowns of the oceans, he immediately set out to find a place where he could easily collect marine life specimens while leading summer classes. He finally settled on San Diego,” according to the institution.

In 1903, an “enthusiastic group of townspeople” formed the Marine Biological Association of San Diego and named Ritter the scientific director, according to SIO. The association raised money for the construction of a small laboratory at La Jolla Cove and by 1907, La Jolla became the permanent location of the new biological station.

Soon after, La Jolla benefactress and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps secured the 170-acre parcel on which Scripps Oceanography now stands.

And that was just to get SIO established.

In the decades that followed, the institution would transition from an outpost connected to UC Berkeley to a facility whose research spanned the globe.

After World War I, the U.S. government realized the importance of the ocean to military operations and determined a better understanding of the ocean was necessary, Monroe said. As such, the term “oceanography” was expanded to include ocean physics as well as biology. In accordance with this new field, the facility was formally named Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1923.

With an established relationship with the military and an expanded research purpose, in the early years of World War II, “Scripps Director Harald Sverdrup … and student Walter Munk devised the first surf forecasts. The two would go on to teach prediction methods to military meteorologists, who used it to time Allied landings on beaches in North Africa and Europe, most notably the D-Day landing in Normandy,” according to the institution.

Munk would go on to become known as the “Einstein of the Oceans,” and a figure intertwined with SIO.

After World War II, the Navy bestowed ships to SIO that would launch “the golden age of discovery,” Monroe said. “Those ships allowed for global exploration.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, the research field would expand once again to include another budding field: climate change research. “We would eventually go on to create a research division just for climate change, and that would become a much bigger focus, even to present day” Monroe said.

Although not a historian by trade, Monroe said he felt “privileged” to work with historians and “be the guy that gets to tell these stories. What’s interesting to me is that it has been several decades since any history of SIO was written in any comprehensive way, so I was glad to update the story of what has happened in the last few years.”

The most recent effort was three years ago, when an administration building was to be decorated with historical photos. “In doing that, we discovered what the main storylines and interesting photos there are that tell the story of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography,” Monroe said.

Luckily, the “Images of America” books are locally focused and picture heavy, so many of those same storylines and images were easily translated into book form.

“Images of America: Scripps Institution of Oceanography” will be available for purchase starting Monday, June 7 for $21.99 at

Monroe will also discuss the book at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 14, at D.G. Wills Books, 7461 Girard Ave. For more information, call (858) 456-1800.