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Matthew Fontaine Maury, 1806-1873

Nationality: American
Date of Birth: 1806.01.14
Place of Birth: Fredericksburg, VA
Date of Death: 1873.02.01
Place of Death: Lexington, VA


Matthew Fontaine Maury was a naval officer and hydrographer. His elder brother joined the US Navy, which perhaps inspired his own career. He married Ann Hull Herndon in 1834 and settled in Fredericksburg.


Lieutenant Maury's book, Physical Geography of the Sea, was published in 1855. Its oversimplified and contradictory explanations caused controversy, although his basic premise that large scale ocean currents were due to convection, rather than winds, was very important. Perhaps his greatest accomplishments are his maps of ocean currents, sea surface temperature and surface winds. The Director of the U.S. Coast Survey from 1843-67, Alexander Dallas Bache, was closely involved in the discussion surrounding Maury's work. Maury joined the Navy in 1824 and between 1825 and 1834, he sailed on three expeditions, visiting the South Pacific and Europe as well as traveling around the world. He was badly injured in a stage-coach accident at the age of 36 in 1842, and then was appointed Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments for the Navy Department in Washington, which allowed him the chance to study the huge number of ships reports in the archives.

His discoveries made him internationally famous. In 1853, he was appointed as the U.S. Representative to the International Congress in Brussels. As a result of his work, days were taken off travel times.

During the Civil War, he fought for the Confederate Navy from 1861, becoming a commander and a spokesperson to Britain for the Confederate cause. After the war he lived in England until 1868, when he was appointed professor of meteorology at Virginia Military Institute and lived in Lexington.


Schlee, Susan, A History of Oceanography, London, 1973, pp. 36-40, 40-48; Williams, Frances L., Ocean Pathfinder: A Biography of Matthew Fontaine Maury, New York, 1966.