Campus & Community

James Joseph McCarthy, 75

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Memorial Minute — Faculty of Arts and Sciences

At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on May 2, 2023, the following tribute to the life and service of the late James Joseph McCarthy was spread upon the permanent records of the Faculty.

James (Jim) McCarthy, Professor of Biological Oceanography and the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, spent more than 45 years at Harvard, sharing his curiosity about life in the oceans and the future of life on our planet with students, colleagues, friends, and family and inspiring all with his kindness, good humor, and joy for discovery.  He passed away on Dec. 11, 2019, after a long bout with pulmonary fibrosis, leaving behind his wife, Sue, his sons, Jamie and Ryan, and two granddaughters.

McCarthy was born on Jan. 25, 1944, and grew up in Sweet Home, Oregon, a small town northeast of Eugene.  He studied biology as an undergraduate at Gonzaga University and then moved to Scripps Institute of Oceanography, where he received his Ph.D. in 1971.  It was a time of new discovery and exploration of the oceans, and McCarthy’s energies focused on phytoplankton, the photosynthetic organisms that make up the base of all marine food webs.  After a brief period as a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, he came to Harvard in 1974.  Over the next 20 years, with students and postdoctoral fellows, McCarthy set out to understand nitrogen in the ocean, one of two critical nutrient cycles that determine the spatial and temporal distribution of life.  He studied nitrogen as it was transformed from gas in the atmosphere to ammonia, then to nitrate dissolved in seawater, and then back to nitrogen — each transition controlled by different groups of microorganisms.  His work remains foundational to modern biological oceanography.

McCarthy’s passion for understanding how phytoplankton live in the oceans was contagious to all who knew him, but his broader curiosity about the Earth system ignited a new intellectual fire that would define the next 25 years of his career.  He began to explore how climate change was affecting the oceans, and ultimately life everywhere.  Through the 1980s and 1990s, McCarthy served on panels for the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation, NASA, NOAA, and for many other organizations, looking at global change as interest in the climate grew.  In 1997, he was named the head of Working Group II for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and led the preparation of its third assessment report, Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptations, and Vulnerabilities.  This was a critical time: the foundations of climate science were under attack from skeptics and climate change was not yet a household concept.  In previous reports, the IPCC had mostly focused on the different components of the climate system, trying to describe the basic phenomenon of global warming.  In the working group’s third assessment report, climate change impacts took center stage, initiating a conversation about vulnerability, equity, and justice that continues today.  McCarthy continued his work at the interface of science and society through the end of his life by supporting the growth of the Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard and by serving on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, as the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and as a board member and then the Chair for his beloved Union of Concerned Scientists.  McCarthy’s contributions earned many honors, including the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2018.

McCarthy’s work on climate change — in one 2005 op-ed that he wrote, he preferred the term “climate shock” — took him around the world, and yet his center was always in Massachusetts, where he devoted himself to students and colleagues at Harvard.  From 1996 through 2009, he and Sue served as Co-Masters of Pforzheimer House, where they would bring undergraduates together with faculty from across the university to explore the intellectual landscape of Harvard at dinners featuring multiple varieties of fish roe and other special delicacies.  McCarthy also served as Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology throughout the 1980s and 1990s, championing the public outreach of Harvard’s collections and helping to create the Harvard Museum of Natural History in 1998.  McCarthy was deeply devoted to his students, whether through his courses or through his work for the fledgling undergraduate concentration called Environmental Science and Public Policy.  Created in 1993 by a small group of colleagues including McCarthy, he took the reins as Head Tutor in 1996 and shepherded the program through 2009.  McCarthy brought together faculty from across the university to serve on the concentration’s Board of Tutors, but he did the lion’s share of mentoring himself.  For more than a decade, concentrators in ESPP were influenced as much by McCarthy’s passionate curiosity as by his kind and supportive outlook.  He was an advocate for all students, engaging them in his office, having lunch or dinner back at PfoHo, or spending spring break with them aboard a wooden sailing ship to make oceanographic measurements.

Those who counted McCarthy as a friend — and there were many — knew him as a diplomatic whistleblower, a leader exercising conscience and truth against self-interest and short-term thinking.  When you were with McCarthy, you always felt that you were your better self, and, despite rising waters and unbidden winds, that our better angels would prevail.  His warmth and gentleness served as a beacon through contentious times.  He never gave up his passion for the world nor his efforts to intervene in the environmental crises he witnessed.  Even as his lungs failed, stricken with advancing pulmonary fibrosis that required him to carry an oxygen tank around the museum complex, McCarthy never lost the twinkle in his eye nor the joy he expressed when seeing people along his path.  He brought a deep sense of humanity to science, just as he brought science into the wider world of human witnessing.  A complete person in so many ways — in research, teaching, friendship, and leadership — his knowledge, compassion, and honesty improved the lives of many, and his memory is dear to many hearts.

Respectfully submitted,

James Engell
James Hanken
Sheila Jasanoff
Daniel Schrag, Chair