James J. McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography and director emeritus of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, died on Dec. 11 after a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis. He was 75.
A champion of the environment, McCarthy, known as Jim, was committed to both education and advocacy about climate change.
“A profound lesson from the past few decades of scientific discovery across the Earth and life sciences is that the weight of the human footprint on essential life-supporting services of the Earth system has grown dramatically since the time of Darwin,” he wrote in 2009 in an article for the journal Science, “Reflections On: Our Planet and Its Life, Origins, and Futures.”
“Could Darwin have imagined that so soon in Earth history a single species would be altering the prospects for the survival of other species across all continents and to the greatest depths of the sea?” he wrote.
Committed to the application of science to public policy, McCarthy led numerous international scientific efforts to alert the world to the effects of climate change. The founding editor of the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, he also served as co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as a lead author of the 2005 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, and as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2008. In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed McCarthy to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. In 2018, he received the prestigious Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement for his work on phytoplankton productivity amid climate change, and his outstanding leadership in the field of science policy. McCarthy shared the award with fellow biological oceanographer, Peter Falkowski, of Rutgers University.
A dedicated fly fisher who angled for trout in his spare time, McCarthy’s scholarship steered him toward the sea. His primary research focused on plankton, and his work on nutrient controls on ocean productivity resulted in many awards, including the New England Aquarium’s David B. Stone Award (2005) for distinguished service to the environment and the community, and the Museum of Science’s Walker Prize, which recognizes “meritorious published scientific investigation and discovery” (2008).