He was nicknamed Pathfinder of the Seas and Father of modern Oceanography and Naval Meteorology and later, Scientist of the Seas, due to the publication of his extensive works in his books, especially Physical Geography of the Sea 1855, the first extensive and comprehensive book on oceanography to be published. Maury made many important new contributions to charting winds and ocean currents, including pathways for ships at sea.
M. F. Maury was born in 1806 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, but his family moved to Franklin, Tennessee when he was five. He wanted to emulate the naval career of his older brother, Flag Lieutenant John Minor Maury, who however caught yellow fever after fighting pirates as an officer in the U.S. Navy. As a result of John's painful death, Matthew Maury's father Richard initially forbade him from joining the Navy. Maury considered attending West Point to get an education, but he obtained a Naval appointment through the influence of Senator Sam Houston in 1825, at the age of 19.
Maury joined the Navy as a midshipman on board the frigate Brandywine which was carrying the Marquis de La Fayette home to France. Almost immediately, he began to study the seas and record methods of navigation.
Matthew Maury's seagoing days came to an abrupt end at the age of 33 after a stagecoach accident broke his hip and knee. Thereafter, he devoted his time to the study of naval meteorology, navigation, charting the winds and currents, seeking the "Paths of the Seas" mentioned in Psalm 8 in the Bible.
His hard work on and love of plotting the oceans paid off when he became the first superintendent of the United States Naval Observatory in 1842, holding that position until his resignation in April 1861. The observatory's primary mission was to care for the United States Navy's marine chronometers, charts, and other navigational equipment.
As a sailor, Maury noted that there were numerous lessons that had been learned by shipmasters about the effects of adverse winds and drift currents on the path of a ship. The captains recorded these lessons faithfully in their logbooks, but they were then forgotten. At the Observatory, Maury uncovered an enormous collection of thousands of old ships' logs and charts in storage in trunks dating back to the start of the U.S. Navy. Maury pored over these documents to collect information on winds, calms, and currents for all seas in all seasons. His dream was to put this information in the hands of all captains. (Source: Nautical Gazette May '40)
Maury's work on ocean currents led him to advocate his theory of the Northwest Passage, as well as the hypothesis that an area in the ocean near the North Pole is occasionally free of ice. The reasoning behind this was sound. Logs of old whaler ships indicated the designs and markings of harpoons. Harpoons found in captured whales in the Atlantic had been shot by ships in the Pacific and vice versa, and this occurred with a frequency that would have been impossible had the whales traveled around Cape Horn.
Maury, knowing a whale to be a mammal, theorized that a northern passage between the oceans that was free of ice must exist to enable the whales to surface and breathe. This became a popular idea that inspired many explorers to seek a reliably navigable sea route. Many of those explorers died in their search.
Lieutenant Maury published his Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic, which showed sailors how to use the ocean's currents and winds to their advantage and drastically reduced the length of ocean voyages; his Sailing Directions and Physical Geography of the Seas and Its Meteorology remain standard. Maury's uniform system of recording synoptic oceanographic data was adopted by navies and merchant marines around the world and was used to develop charts for all the major trade routes.
Maury's Observatory team included James Melville Gilliss, Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke, William Lewis Herndon, Lieutenant Isaac Strain, John Herndon Maury of the Darien Gap expedition, and others — but their duty was always temporary at the Observatory, and new men had to be trained over and over again. Thus Lt. M F Maury was working with astronomical work and nautical work at the same time, while constantly training new temporary men to assist in these works. Maury advocated naval reform, including a school for the Navy that would rival the army's West Point. This reform was fulfilled with the creation of the United States Naval Academy.
Maury also advocated an international weather service. Having charted the seas and currents, he worked on charting land weather forecasting. Congress refused to appropriate funds for a system of weather observations. Nevertheless, in 1853 King Leopold of Belgium called a congress of nations to consider ways to further Maury's research. As a result a number of nations, including many traditional enemies, agreed to cooperate in the sharing of weather data using uniform standards. (Source: Nautical Gazette May '40)
Before the start of the American Civil War, Maury had sent William Lewis Herndon and Lardner Gibbon, both of whom worked at the USN Observatory, to explore the Amazon region to the ocean, while gathering as much information as possible including on slavery in any of those areas. Maury thought the area could serve as a "safety valve" to allow southern slave owners to sell their slaves. (Gerald Horne, The Deepest South: The United States, Brazil and the African Slave Trade, New York University Press, New York & London, 2007: p 4)
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Maury, born in Virginia, resigned his commission as a U.S. Navy Commander to serve on the Confederate side as Chief of SeaCoast, River and Harbor Defences. He also went abroad in England, Ireland France, acquiring ships and supplies for the Confederacy. Through speeches and newspaper publications, Maury attempted to get other nations to stop the Civil War.
Maury also perfected an electric torpedo which raised havoc with northern shipping. The torpedoes, similar to present-day contact mines, were said by the Secretary of the Navy in 1865 to have cost the Union more vessels than all other causes combined. (Source: The Nautical Gazette May '40)
The war would bring ruin to many in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Maury's immediate family lived. Following the war, after serving Maximilian in Mexico as "Imperial Commissioner of Immigration -- building Carlotta and New Virginia Colonies for displaced Confederates and any other immigrants from other lands, Maury accepted a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), holding the chair of physics.
Maury advocated the creation of an agricultural college to complement VMI, which led to the establishment of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Virginia in 1872. Maury declined the offer to become its first president because of his age. He had previously been suggested as president of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1848 by Benjamin Blake Minor in his publication the Southern Literary Messenger. Maury considered becoming president of St. John's College in Annapolis Maryland, the University of Alabama, and the University of Tennessee. It appears that he preferred being close to General Lee in Lexington from statements Maury made in letters. Maury served as a pall bearer for General Robert Edward Lee. (Source: Southern Historical Society's Papers)
During his time at VMI, Maury wrote a book entitled The Physical Geography of Virginia. He had once been a gold mining superintendent outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia, and had studied geology intensly during that time so he was well suited for a book on geology as he was with his many other studies and work. The idea was to assist war-torn Virginia in minerals, farming and whatever else it took in getting her rebuilt after such destruction. More battles took place in Virginia than anywhere else, with Tennessee being second.
During its first 1868 meeting, Maury helped launch the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Maury later gave talks in Europe about cooperation on a weather bureau for land just as he had charted the winds and predicted storms at sea many years before. He gave these Weather on Land speeches until his last days when he collapsed giving a speech. He went home after he recovered and told Ann Hull Herndon-Maury, his wife, "I have come home to die."
Matthew Fontaine Maury died at home in Lexington. He was exhausted from traveling throughout this nation while giving speeches promoting Land Meteorology. Commodore Maury breathed his last at exactly 12:40 P.M., on Saturday, February 1, 1873. He was attended by his son, Major Richard Launcelot Maury & son-in- law, former Major Spottswood Wellford Corbin. M F Maury asked his daughters and wife to leave the room. His last words were, "All's Well", a nautical expression telling of calm conditions at sea, as he raised his hands into the air as though being taken to a better place. (Source: Life of Maury by his daughter, Diana Fontaine Maury-Corbin) His body was placed on display in the VMI library (photo forthcoming. Maury was initially buried in the Gilham family vault in Lexington's cemetery, across from Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, until, after some delay into the next year, when his remains were taken through Goshen Pass to Richmond, Virginia. He was reburied between Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
After decades of national and international hard work averaging 14 hours per day, Maury received fame and honors, including being knighted by several nations and given medals with precious gems, as well as a collection of all medals struck by Pope Pius IX during his pontificate, a book dedication and more from Father Angelo Secchi, who was a student of Maury from 1848 - 1849 in the U.S. Naval Observatory. The two remained life-long friends. Other religious friends of Maury included James Hervey Otey, M. F. Maury's former teacher who, before "1857", worked with Bishop Leonidas Polk on the construction of the University of the South in Tennessee. While visiting there, Maury was convinced by his old teacher to give the "cornerstone speech".
As a United States Navy officer, Maury declined awards from foreign nations as their acceptance was against US military policy. However, they were offered to Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury's wife, Ann Hull Herndon-Maury, who accepted them for her husband. Some have been placed at Virginia Military Institute, others were loaned to the Smithsonian and yet others remain in the family. Matthew Maury became a Commodore (often a title of courtesy) in the Virginia Provisional Navy, and a Commander in the Confederacy.
A monument to Maury, by sculptor Frederick William Sievers, was unveiled in Richmond on November 11, 1929. Maury Hall, the home of the Naval Science Department at the University of Virginia and headquarters of the University's Navy ROTC battalion, was named in his honor. Another Maury Hall, named after him, houses the Departments of Electrical Engineering and Systems Engineering at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Ships have been named in his honor including three United States Navy ships named USS Maury. A fourth United States Navy ship named in his honor was the "USS Commodore Maury" (SP-656), patrol vessel and mine sweeper of World War I. Additionally, Tidewater Community College, based in Norfolk Virginia, owns the R/V Matthew F. Maury. This ship is used for Oceanography research and student cruises.
Lake Maury in Newport News, Virginia is named after Maury. The Lake is located on the Mariners' Museum property and is encircled by a walking trail. The Maury River, located entirely in Rockbridge County, Virginia, near Virginia Military Institute (where Maury was on faculty), also honors the scientist, as does a Maury (crater) on the Moon.
Additionally, a high school in Norfolk, VA is named for Maury, and has been ranked in the top 1000 high schools in the country, and the highest in the city, by Newsweek. Matthew Fontaine Maury High School is located in Norfolk Public Schools which was named the Best Urban School District last year. Maury County, TN is named for his great-uncle.
Dan Graves listed Matthew Maury among his 48 great Scientists of Faith on grounds that: Maury lived by the Scriptures; he fully and unconditionally believed in what the Holy Scriptures stated; he hardly ever spoke or wrote without the inclusion of scriptural references; he prayed every day.