John A. Knauss – Visionary Oceanographer and NOAA Administrator

Dr. John A. Knauss, founding Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO), Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere in the Department of Commerce, and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 1989 to 1993 died peacefully on November 19th following a period of declining health in Saunderstown, RI, where he had lived for the last 53 years. He was 90 years old at the time of his death.

As founding Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography, he created an oceanographic institution in 1962 at the University of Rhode Island that became nationally and internationally recognized for its breadth of oceanographic and marine programs. In partnership with Senator Claiborne Pell and Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus, he was instrumental in the formulation and development of the National Sea Grant Program in 1966 that has had a major impact on marine science, policy and management in the United States. He was widely viewed as an international leader in oceanography and marine policy over a long and productive career.

John Knauss portraitJohn Knauss was born in Detroit, Michigan on September 1, 1925 to Karl and Loise Knauss, both of whom were teachers. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he studied meteorology as part of the United States Navy’s V-12 program, met his future wife Lynn, received his B.S. in meteorology in 1946 and was commisioned as an Ensign in the United States Navy. He was assigned to Weather Central on North Island in San Diego, CA where he served as a weather forecaster for the San Diego area as well as for all the pilots that flew from North Island. Upon leaving active duty with the Navy, John took a position with the Navy Electronics Laboratory, but returned to Michigan to study physics. John received his Master of Science degree in Physics from the University of Michigan in 1949. After spending some time traveling in Europe, John returned and started a job with the Office of Naval Research at the Navy Hydrographic Office in Suitland, MD where he helped distribute federal dollars to oceanographers. With ONR colleagues, he was instrumental in convincing the Navy to support oceanographic research at universities. But, he soon realized that he wanted to pursue oceanography as a career and decided to attend the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to study with Roger Revelle. In his Ph.D. dissertation, he made the first comprehensive measurements of the Pacific Equatorial Undercurrent, demonstrated this to be a major component of the Pacific Ocean circulation, and went on to discover a similar current in the Indian Ocean. He received his Ph.D. in 1959.

In 1962, the University of Rhode Island recruited John to create a new oceanographic institution, the Graduate School of Oceanography, at URI’s Narragansett Bay Campus. He recognized this as a unique opportunity having a major research facility on Narragansett Bay, with students being able to take non-oceanography courses on the main campus only six miles away. After buying a mothballed 180-foot, one-thousand-ton World War II Army vessel for $500 through the federal government’s educational surplus program, Scripps helped John get the vessel to Rhode Island in 1962, after transiting the Panama Canal, and arrived in Narragansett Bay carrying some of John’s household belongings and those of the first two new faculty at GSO. The R/V Trident provided an opportunity for faculty and students to carry out a wide range of oceanographic research for 15 years in the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas, Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. As Dean, he oversaw the acquisition in 1977 and subsequent operation of the R/V Endeavor, which is owned by the National Science Foundation and continues to be operated throughout the Atlantic Ocean by the Graduate School of Oceanography.

Over his 25 years as Dean, Knauss built a major oceanographic institution at the University of Rhode Island, with 41 faculty, 73 professional staff, 169 graduate students, 12 buildings and operation of the R/V Endeavor at the time of his retirement. In addition to his responsibilities at GSO, he was Provost for Marine Affairs from 1969 to 1982, Acting Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1976, and Vice President of Marine Programs from 1982 to 1987. He had a significant and long-lasting impact at the University of Rhode Island in these roles. With Lewis Alexander, he established the Department of Geography and Marine Affairs, which had the first marine affairs degree program in the country and led to the first Ph.D. program in marine affairs. He fostered the vision that marine programs should be important throughout the university and helped develop the first Ocean Engineering department, a Resource Economics department with strong marine focus, and the evolution of the Animal Sciences department to Fisheries, Animal, and Veterinary Sciences. He retired from the University of Rhode Island in 1990 and was Dean and Professor Emeritus at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the time of his death.

He served on many national and international organizations and committees during the course of his career including being President of the American Geophysical Union, President of the Oceanography Section of the American Geophysical Union, Board of Directors of the National Oceanography Association, President of the Association of Sea Grant Program Institutions, Vice President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Chair of the Section on Atmospheric and Hydrospheric Sciences, and Chair of the University- National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS).

John Knauss received a number of awards and honors in recognition of his contributions to oceanography and marine affairs including the National Sea Grant Award, Rhode Island Science and Technology Award, Ocean Sciences Award from the Ocean Sciences Section of the American Geophysical Union, American Geophysical Union Athlestan Spilhaus Prize and the Ram Award of the URI Alumni Association. He was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, and the Marine Technology Society. He was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1983 and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Rhode Island in 1992.

Dean Knauss was involved with a number of important national initiatives during his career. He was a member of the influential Stratton Commission and the only academic oceanographer on the commission that produced the report, Our Nation and the Sea: A Plan for National Action, in 1969. The report provided a plan for the use of the oceans and the governmental structures needed to achieve the objectives of the plan and led to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the formation of the Coastal Zone Management Act. He was very interested in freedom of research on the high seas and was a delegate to the Law of the Sea meeting, where he was critical in the discussions to insure access for research on continental margins beyond the 200-mile limit. Over the years, he wrote a number of important papers on law of the sea.

One of Dean Knauss’ notable achievements in collaboration with Senator Claiborne Pell and Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus was the creation of Sea Grant. The idea of creating sea grant colleges came about from their discussions to create a program similar to land grant colleges. A national conference to discuss such a concept was held in 1965, and the National Sea Grant College Program and Act went into effect in 1966. In recognition of John’s leadership role in the development of Sea Grant, the flagship program of Washington, DC internships was named for him in 1979, the Dean John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship.
John Knauss was also known for his keen sense of humor. He was a member of the American Miscellaneous Society formed “to see the lighter side of heavier problems” and together with Art Maxwell and Gordon Lill created the Albatross Award which they immediately awarded to themselves for creating the award. He later wrote “since it was their idea in the first place, they gave the first one to themselves, knowing they might not otherwise be nominated.”

John Knauss was appointed Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography at the age of 37 three years after graduating from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1962 at which time the oceanography chairs from the University of Washington, Oregon State University and Texas A & M were also Scripps graduates. At the time of his death, the Dean and Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Vice President and Dean of the Graduate Program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography are all alumni of the Graduate School of Oceanography and were graduate students with John Knauss as their dean. His leadership and dedication to oceanography made a lasting impression on these and many other alumni that had the good fortune to be students during his tenure. His many contributions as a marine scientist and educator leave a lasting legacy to the Graduate School of Oceanography, the University of Rhode Island, the State of Rhode Island and the nation.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in his memory to the John A. Knauss Fund for Oceanographic Excellence, or to the charity of your choice. Contributions can be made payable to the “URI Foundation” with “John A. Knauss Fund for Oceanographic Excellence” in the subject line, and mailed to: URI Foundation, PO Box 1700, Kingston, RI 02881.

A memorial gathering will be held Saturday, December 5th at the Village Inn (One Beach Street, Narragansett, RI) and will be from 3:00 – 6:00PM with remarks at 4:00PM. A second memorial gathering will occur sometime in late spring or early summer and will be announced at a later date.