Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

Dixy Lee Ray, marine biology, and the public understanding of science in the United States (1930-1970)

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  • This dissertation focuses on the life of Dixy Lee Ray as it examines important developments in marine biology and biological oceanography during the mid twentieth century. In addition, Ray's key involvement in the public understanding of science movement of the 1950s and 1960s provides a larger social and cultural context for studying and analyzing scientists' motivations during the period of the early Cold War in the United States. The dissertation is informed throughout by the notion that science is a deeply embedded aspect of Western culture. To understand American science and society in the mid twentieth century it is instructive, then, to analyze individuals who were seen as influential and who reflected widely held cultural values at that time. Dixy Lee Ray was one of those individuals. Yet, instead of remaining a prominent and enduring figure in American history, she has disappeared rapidly from historical memory, and especially from the history of science. It is this very characteristic of reflecting her time, rather than possessing a timeless appeal, that makes Ray an effective historical guide into the recent past. Her career brings into focus some of the significant ways in which American science and society shifted over the course of the Cold War. Beginning with Ray's early life in West Coast society of the 1920s and 1930s, this study traces Ray's formal education, her entry into the professional ranks of marine biology and the crucial role she played in broadening the scope of biological oceanography in the early 1960s. The dissertation then analyzes Ray's efforts in public science education, through educational television, at the science and technology themed Seattle World's Fair, and finally in her leadership of the Pacific Science Center. I argue that Ray was ideally suited to promote a dominant conception of a socially useful and instrumental form of science that lay at the core of the public understanding of science through the 1960s. These efforts in the public understanding of science reflected a broad endeavor among scientists to spread knowledge about and values of modern science from elite American society to a broader public. The dissertation concludes with a short examination of Ray's neutral gendered identity which, considered within the largely masculine context of science, played a significantly role in the successes of her professional career.
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