When asked about the most interesting person he had ever interviewed, Walter Cronkite replied, “You may not have heard of him, but his name was Athelstan Spilhaus.”
Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus (1911-1998) was, among other things, the “Father of Sea Grant.” The concept of a Sea Grant College Program is modeled on the nation’s Land Grant College system, and Wisconsin is home to both a Land Grant College and a Sea Grant College. In Wisconsin’s instance, the “sea” is the Great Lakes, often referred to as the nation’s third coast.
Federal legislation to establish the Sea Grant College Program was enacted in 1966. Thanks to Spilhaus thousands of critical aquatic science research projects have been conducted, extension specialists have worked with hundreds of partners to apply that research, and maritime education has moved forward.
Spilhaus’s 100th birthday would have been Nov. 25. In addition to founding Sea Grant, he invented an instrument that measures ocean conditions. Known as a bathythermograph, the instrument proved so important during World War II that Winston Churchill wrote Spilhaus to thank him for inventing it.
The South African-born oceanographer, geophysicist and writer is about to be the subject of writing himself. Sharon Moen, communications manager for Minnesota Sea Grant, is completing the book “With Tomorrow in Mind: Athelstan Spilhaus (Dreamer of Satellites, Cities and Sea Grant).”
“Beyond coming up with the Sea Grant concept and then tirelessly pushing for it to become a reality, Dr. Spilhaus was a sharp-thinking, wildly creative, unusually productive individual, literally until the day he died,” Moen said.
She hopes to have her book published in time for the August 2012 meeting of the American Fisheries Society in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The last time the AFS met in the Twin Cities—a mere 49 years ago—Spilhaus delivered the Sea Grant speech that began it all.