Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them.  It sank into the swamp.  So I built a second one.  That one sank into the swamp.  So I built a third.  That burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that’s what you’re going to get, Son, the strongest castle in all of England. – The King of Swamp Castle

When the members of Monty Python sat down to write the Swamp Castle sketch they probably did not have in mind the career trajectory of oceanography legend Kathleen Crane, but if you replace “castle” with “an oceanographic career” and “swamp” with “pervasively misogynistic culture of Seventies oceanographic research” it’s an amazingly accurate summary of Crane’s early years.

Both King and Crane kept attempting to rebuild their respective edifices in the face of repeated, overwhelming forces intent on destroying and submerging their best efforts.  And just as, at somewhere around the second and a halfth castle some trusted advisor must have urged the King to find something else to do, because swamps are jerks and one is probably better off without them, so in reading the tale of Crane’s life is one constantly yelling at the page, “Get out of there, Kathy!  You are surrounded by a toxic culture and deserve better!”

Crane is every smart kid who comes from a quiet, introspective family, grows up a brainy misfit who seeks isolation and finds solace in books, maps, and nature, and who ultimately steers themselves towards a life outlet that will allow them to see the world without necessarily being OF the world.  Oceanography seemed perfectly tailored to that mode of being, and so, in 1969, Crane attended Oregon State University as a geology undergraduate (oceanography not being an undergraduate option at the time).  These were the Wild West days of American geology, where departments were dominated by lumbering, beard-bedecked men who did not look kindly on the prospect of change in the way they worked or thought.

Crane was the first woman undergraduate in the department, and was treated with an open disdain by the professors, not at all helped by her advocacy of plate tectonic theory, now a matter of common knowledge but then belittled by nearly the entire faculty as “bunk.”  Surrounded by actively hostile professors who attempted to remove her from an award list on account of her gender and gave her near-failing grades for simply mentioning the possibility that an exciting new theory might be worthwhile, Crane as an undergraduate was watching her first castle groan swamp-wards.

When taking classes in the physics department, she noticed she was treated as an equal in an atmosphere where only the math and ideas mattered.  It was an important experience – different departments had different cultures, and just because OSU’s geologists were reactionary misogynists of the worst sort didn’t mean that geology and, beyond it, oceanography, were doomed career pathways.  Crane took advantage of an opportunity to study in Germany in 1971, and used her time there to experience the full spectrum of Cold War European life.

Moments shared with real individuals on both sides of the great East-West divide would provide crucial human insights for the path of her later career, but upon her return to the United States her more pressing concern was what to do with her educational future.  She decided to aim high and applied to the nation’s most prestigious oceanographic programs, including the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in what was at the time the surfing and counter-culture capital of San Diego, La Jolla.  Putting her rocky experiences behind her, it was time to get started on that Second Castle.

While not the only woman studying at Scripps, she was nonetheless one of only a handful, and though the young oceanographers were overall a loyal and tight-knit bunch, Crane experienced once again the inertia of a system not geared for women, and in no hurry to become so.  The lifeblood of an oceanographic career is fieldwork, grueling hours spent on a boat monitoring equipment for hours on end as it does its damndest to break itself upon the slightest provocation.  Historically, women were not allowed on these expeditions so as not to disturb crew morale with their feminine wiles, and if a woman oceanographer had a study she wanted done, she had to put her equipment in the hands of a male researcher who might or might not remember to deploy it during the mission.

Crane’s early career was filled with a litany of expedition irritations – the fact that a woman needed to find another woman researcher to go on expeditions with her because a lone woman was not allowed on the boat,  the tradition that, even when allowed on the vessel, women were denied regular crew quarters in the stable lower sections of the research craft, and so ended up tossed around in makeshift rooms located higher on the vessel, and the inevitable awkwardness about access to bathrooms.

Compounding these material difficulties was Crane’s instinct for attaching herself to new ideas that would ultimately turn out to be correct but that nobody around her believed in, and actively dissuaded her from pursuing.  At OSU it was plate tectonics, and at Scripps it was ocean floor hot springs.  At the time, everyone knew that any temperature variance in the sea might be explained by the energy the sun deposited on the ocean surface, and that it was foolish to look for a heat source elsewhere.  But in the early 1970s data was beginning to surface that suggested significant ocean floor thermal activity, a prospect that excited Crane and that she spent much of the first half of her Scripps career researching against the explicit advice of everyone around her, only to watch those very same colleagues jump on the thermal vent bandwagon she had set in motion after her work pointed to its probability.

In spite of her ideas, and in spite of her gender, she was eventually allowed on an expedition.  That expedition, to study the East Pacific Rise, was a disaster of such overwhelming proportions that one is surprised to find it did not warn Crane off of oceanography entirely.  The chief scientist reworked the mission roster to include a number of his friends from his alternative therapy sessions who had no training in oceanography, prompting the only other geologist on the mission besides Crane to resign, leaving her the lone representative of her field on her first official voyage.  That chief scientist did not join the mission until its second leg, when he aggressively began inserting himself into everybody’s experiments, neglecting to deploy crucial equipment or placing it wrongly, and then literally screaming about mutiny when his scientists attempted to salvage the grotesque comedy forming in their midst.  He gave increasingly odd and tyrannical orders, harassing the scientists and interfering with their experiments and even their basic medical care.

For a young scientist on her first expedition, sleeping only a couple of hours a day (or every other day) to cover all the navigation and research that needed to be done, and to attempt to reverse the damage wrought by her unstable mission chief, it was a hellish introduction to the world of field research.  Crane’s second castle had demonstrably fallen into the swamp, and one would not have blamed her at this point for getting out of the game entirely and going into a field less dehumanizing, but Crane was on the trail of a tantalizing new vision of the earth’s sub-oceanic crust, and when her next voyage not only didn’t end in virtual mutiny, but actually revealed temperature data that seemed to confirm the presence and importance of oceanic hot springs, her colleagues were quick to respond positively.  What could go wrong?

Enter the third castle, this one in the form of a 1976 Scripps expedition to the Galapagos Spreading Center, located to the Southwest of Panama.  This expedition consisted of two legs, and Crane was once again hard at work sleeping minimal hours and working the early morning 4-8 shifts as she gathered increasingly convincing evidence of the existence of oceanic hot springs and therefore of a totally new approach to how heat originates and distributes itself throughout the world’s oceans.  Her colleagues, seeing how important the discovery was and how much work she had put into researching the topic, developing plans to investigate it, and sticking to her scientific instincts amid universal discouragement, happily gave her time to organize her data and publish her hard-achieved results.

I am, of course, kidding, and they did no such thing.  Instead, they left the ship at the end of the first leg while Crane remained on to complete her testing, and booked back to California to write up her results as their own in a paper that announced the discovery of oceanic hot springs which did not once mention her name or work.

Four years into her career, Crane had experienced just about every indignity and setback on the academic wheel of horrors.  Restricted by her gender, mocked and discouraged for her ideas, physically and emotionally threatened by an unbalanced chief scientist, and robbed of the credit for the ideas she had championed and investigated under the worst of conditions, a change of career was surely in order by this point, but rather than change her field Crane spent some time trying to find a research group less openly mercenary than that of Scripps, and ultimately found it, first at Woods Hole, and ultimately at Lamont, where oceanographic work of the first order was being done in a more collaborative spirit than Crane had yet known.

With the help of supportive colleagues and growing world fame, she could at last build her fourth castle.  Those in the know realized how much of the hot springs research was due to Crane’s instincts and methods, and she was increasingly invited around the world as an expert in oceanic geology and particularly on the measurement of heat variations near oceanic rifts.  In 1977 she worked with Woods Hole researchers to employ the submersible Alvin in the closer investigation of the sites she had identified in her 1976 expedition, and in the process paved the way for new discoveries about the biochemistry of hot spring dwelling organisms.  Then in 1980 (after having applied to, and very nearly been accepted into the final group for, NASA’s first class of women astronauts) she began what was to be a career-spanning interest in the politically charged but ecologically crucial Arctic Ocean.

Recognized and respected professionally, Crane’s career was on the rise when suddenly, in 1981, everything she had worked for was placed in jeopardy again, but this time at the hands of internal rather than external agents.  She came down with a mysterious neurological disease that numbed her limbs, blurred her vision, and at its worst pushed her to the brink of total paralysis.  Her colleagues rallied around her, finding lodgings and care to see her through the nearly year-long recovery process, and by 1982 she was ready to return to work, though her symptoms would recur throughout her life.

Much of Crane’s work in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s centered on the Arctic, long a hot spot of Cold War submarine competition between the Soviet Union and the United States.  The Arctic has a crucial role to play in the maintenance of the Gulf Stream, the warm water currents which are responsible for regulating the temperate weather of Europe.  This global thermal process is driven in part by the sinking of cold, salty Arctic water in the North, but the melting of Arctic ice is pushing more and more freshwater into that system.  This has the potential to dangerously hinder the overturning of Arctic waters, and thereby to knock out one of the globe’s primary heat circulation systems.

In spite of its centrality to the well-being of the planet, the Arctic had to wait for the fall of the Soviet Union to be studied intensely.  With the de-classification of Russian documents, it was discovered that the Soviets had been throwing dangerous radioactive materials into the ocean for years, treating it as a dumping ground for all manner of pollutants which were working their way perilously up the food chain and resulting in a toxic haze that had settled over the region.  Crane was a leading force in RUSALCA, the 2003 initiative to work with the Russians to gather more information about the region and suggest strategies for protecting it from further degradation.  She had previously merged Soviet and US research into an Arctic Environmental Atlas in 2000, and was instrumental in bringing about the first Russian-American Arctic collaborative expedition in 2004.

Kathleen Crane stuck it out in an academic field that seemed to take perverse pleasure in damping her enthusiasm and crushing her spirit, and emerged as one of oceanography’s most sought after collaborators, with over eighty publications to her name and a world-wide reputation for the solidity and internationality of her work.  When individual humans failed her, she kept her vision solidly on the science before her, and in developing the methods which would yield new insights into the global distribution of thermal energy that she knew must be there.  To an age just stirring to the dangers of global warming, her data and theories revealed the mechanisms behind large scale systems that drive the planet’s climate, some robust and some achingly fragile, and all requiring the devotion of people like Crane who stay at their posts heedless of self to measure, monitor, and report what they find.

FURTHER READING: Crane’s 2003 autobiography Sea Legs: Tales of a Woman Oceanographer is one of my favorite reads in a long time.  The absurd magnitude of her early challenges as set against the scale of her later accomplishments is dizzying to contemplate, and her descriptions of life in La Jolla in the 1970s and of her work in the Arctic are engagingly told.  Crane’s environmental atlas of the Arctic can be found here in Russian at RUSALCA’s main site.

Lead photo: Kathleen Crane, 2010, RUSALCA Expedition; courtesy of Dr. Crane and published on Women You Should Know with her express permission

Want to know more awesome Women in Science? Check out my WYSK column archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 1Volume 2 and Volume 3.