Ruth Turner

Ruth TUrner at workRuth Dixon Turner (1914-2000) was a naturalist, educator, author, curator, and diver who over the course of her career became the world's expert on shipworms. Sometimes affectionately called "Lady Wormwood" because of her work on shipworms, she published more than 100 scientific papers. Her 1966 book A survey and illustrated catalogue of the Teredinidae (Mollusca: BivaIvia) was widely acclaimed as the most important book about shipworms. She was a mentor to many marine biologists. Her archive in the Ernst Mayr Library's Special Collections has hundreds of recommendation letters that she wrote for graduate students.

Dr. Turner was born into a large family in Melrose, Massachusetts. Her father was a cabinet maker and her mother a dressmaker, and she was one of eight children. She graduated from Bridgewater State College in 1936 (B.S.), and taught in Vermont and Massachusetts public schools until 1939.  However, beginning in the 1940s, her career shifted to science and natural history. After working as an educator and Assistant Curator of Birds at the New England Museum of Natural History (now the Boston Museum of Science), Turner studied ornithology at Cornell University (M.S., 1944).  She was an instructor in the Biology Dept. at Vassar College from 1942-1944, followed by two years as a research biologist at Clapp Laboratories in Duxbury, MA.

Turner's interest shifted from ornithology to malacology at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, where she joined the staff as a Research Assistant in 1946.  She completed a Ph.D. in Biology at Radcliffe College, Harvard University, in 1954, under the direction of malacologist Dr. William J. Clench.  (Dissertation Monograph of the Pholadidae of the Western Atlantic and the Eastern Pacific.)   She advanced into the professional curatorial ranks at the MCZ, conducting research and publishing articles with Clench and as a sole author.  After teaching at Harvard as a Lecturer for several years, she was appointed Professor of Biology in 1975.

Ruth Turner with AlvinIn 1971, Dr. Turner was the first woman to descend into the ocean depths in the submersible Alvin, owned and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Although at the time oceanic research was dominated by males, she was comfortable in that society, even playing poker with her colleagues. She worked with Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic in 1985, and identified shipworms as the cause of the substantial loss of wood in the wreck. She helped investigate many other shipwrecks and was an expert on deep-sea vent systems. (Photo copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Described as "a tiny woman with a strong jaw and equally strong opinions," Dr. Turner scuba dived well into her 70s. (Some of her personal observations are on the Ernst Mayr Library's blog.) Her contributions to the understanding of shipworms were vast, and she studied everything from their reproduction to their biology to how they disperse. In the process she traveled around the world. She never married, but devoted herself to the mentoring of graduate students, whom she urged to "do what sets you on fire." She continued to go on expeditions until two years before her death at age 85.

References: Mann, Roger. 2000. "In Memoriam: Ruth Dixon Turner 1914-2000". J. of Shellfish Research v. 19 (1), p. 7-12.    Martin, Douglas. 2000. "Ruth D. Turner, 85, expert on the wood-eating mollusks." New York Times May 9, 2000, C3.   Archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.


Shipworm damage with animal visibleThe Teredinidae are sometimes called "boring clams" but they have a long and interesting history. These unusual mollusks have been responsible for a great deal of damage to man-made wooden ships and piers - anything wooden that is immersed in seawater. They dine on any kind of wood they find in the oceans - ships, including sunken wrecks, driftwood, docks, floating logs - and they have been known for thousands of years.

The Teredinidae are also known as shipworms, but they aren't worms at all, although they look wormlike. Like any self-respecting clams, they have shells, albeit only tiny ones that sit on top of their heads like helmets with sharp edges. They use these to bore through wood. Since they are unable to digest the wood themselves, they have teamed up with bacteria that provide enzymes that make digestion possible. There are more than 175 species of shipworm and adults range in size from a few centimeters to a meter in length.

As tiny larvae, the shipworms enter wood by boring tiny holes, and then they go to work tunneling through the wood. They are very respectful of each other, however, and politely abstain from encroaching on another's burrow. Also known as "termites of the sea," historically they have been transported around the world in ships' hulls.

More than 3,000 years ago the ancient Phoenicians and Egyptians covered their boats with pitch and wax to prevent shipworm incursions. The Greeks and Romans used lead, pitch and tar for the same reason. Columbus's 4th voyage to the New World was interrupted when shipworms wreaked havoc on his fleet. The animals may also have helped sink the Spanish Armada in 1588.

In the succeeding centuries, ships were covered with a variety of materials to ward off shipworms, but many of these materials leach toxins into the water so today other methods are being tested. (Ironically, during the many years that the New York harbor was heavily polluted, shipworms were not a problem, but once the water was cleaned they returned and caused surprising devastation, including the unexpected collapse of a pier.)

For more information:

  • Cobb, Kristen. 2002. Return of a castaway: The gripping story of a boring clam. Science News , August 3, 2002: 72+.
  • Encyclopedia of Life. Teredinidae
  • Gruson, Lindsey. 1993. In cleaner harbor, creatures eat the waterfront. New York TImes, June 27, 1993.
  • Harvard Museum of Natural History. Shipworm.