Volume 11, Number 1, 2002

A tale of two scientists

A half-century ago, few people could have imagined that a marine program with a makeshift lab in an old, deserted restaurant in Lewes, Del., would grow into the nationally recognized institution that today is the University's Graduate College of Marine Studies. This achievement was due in large part to the pioneering work of such marine scientists as Franklin C. Daiber, professor emeritus, and his wife, Joanne Currier Daiber, who now have published their personal accounts of the early days of the College.

UD's marine program was established in 1950, when the Delaware General Assembly allocated money to address a drastic decline in fisheries in the Delaware Bay. The purpose of the program was threefold--to evaluate fishery resources in the state, suggest remedial actions and develop an academic program. Eugene Cronin, from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Maryland, was hired as director of the program and set up a temporary field station in the basement of Lewes High School.

The following summer, more permanent space became available in an old restaurant at Bunting's Landing in Lewes. An improvised lab was quickly set up in the one large room of the building, which had been the restaurant's dining room, and a staff of five scientists was hired. One of those five, Joanne E. Currier, holds the distinction of being the first female marine scientist hired by the University.

In 1952, as the laboratory's duties and research began to expand, Daiber joined the group. His marriage to Currier, in September of the following year, essentially put an end to her career because University policy at the time did not allow married couples to work together. However, she continued to support her husband and his research in the marine sciences until his retirement in 1987.

A few years ago, the Daibers began writing a memoir of their experiences as two of the University's first marine scientists. Their story now is told in an elegant, two-book set called Salty Memoirs: Adventures in Marine Science, consisting of Views from the Distaff Side by Joanne Daiber and Birth Pangs and Growing Pains by Franklin Daiber. The books are illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings by their oldest son, Steven, AS '78, and numerous black-and-white photographs--many taken by Franklin Daiber.

Salty Memoirs was written as two separate books so that the Daibers could present their individual perceptions and recollections. Views from the Distaff Side provides insight into Joanne Daiber's life in the early 1950s, when, as she recalls in her narrative, "It must have been a novelty to see a woman scientist." Women who were successful in joining the work force had to overcome many barriers, she writes, commenting that she was reluctant to take time off for vacation because she "was still trying to prove that a woman would not be a handicap to the job."

Each book also captures the distinctive voice and sense of humor of its author. In Birth Pangs and Growing Pains, Franklin Daiber wryly describes the many challenges that arose in those early years of conducting marine research at the University, when only the bare essentials in terms of money, staff and equipment were available.

"The ceiling of the old dining room where we worked was so low that I continually broke the overhead light bulb with my head when I rose from my chair," he says of the lab in the old restaurant building. "And, the wooden drawers of my desk expanded so much in the humidity that it became nearly impossible to open or close them."

He also recalls the constant worry of what would happen to the lab in the event of a hurricane. "The two big questions were: Would we see either the roof blow off or the building float off its cement-block foundation?" he says. The building survived its first hurricane in the summer of 1953, but the roof began leaking so badly that the ceiling was in danger of collapsing. The search began for new facilities.

A new laboratory, Bayside Lab, was built in 1955 on an island between the Broadkill River and Delaware Bay. Although Bayside Lab provided the scientists with a facility that was designed for the sole purpose of conducting marine research, they now had the added complication of having to commute to work by water.

"Traveling to and from Bayside Lab by boat required strength and expertise, and I suspect that everyone who ever lived or worked on that island could easily recall a nightmarish episode concerning the strength of the tidal flows," Franklin Daiber writes.

The Daibers also paint a vivid picture of what it was like to use one of their most important pieces of equipment--the 40-foot Acartia, which was the University's first research vessel. The Acartia had "a cabin, a faulty compass, a car engine and little else," according to Franklin Daiber.

"Steering was done mainly by leaning well out from the cabin wall on the port side, in order to look ahead," he says. "I can say from experience that this was mighty unpleasant during snow or rainy weather, and one learned to carry an unguent to soothe sore neck muscles."

Installing such improvements as an accurate compass, running lights and a ship-to-shore radio made the Acartia safer, but this didn't stop Joanne Daiber's father from taking out an insurance policy on her. He later told her that her work placed her "in the highest bracket--that of deep-sea fishermen!"

In spite of its problems, the Acartia was used so intensively in the bay that "it literally wore out," Franklin Daiber says. It was replaced by the Wolverine, a 45-foot ketch-rigged motor sailer that previously was used as a pleasure craft and was therefore not equipped to be a scientific research vessel. Franklin Daiber applied for and received a grant to have the Wolverine rebuilt according to his specifications.

"When this was accomplished, she was not a particularly handsome-looking vessel," he says, but the rebuilt ship was reliable and could be used for tasks that ranged from drilling to dredging to hydrographic studies.

Living conditions in Lewes were just as difficult as the working conditions. Accommodations were not only hard to find but also expensive--so much so that after Bayside Lab was built, the attic of the building became the living quarters for the men. "It was wickedly hot, despite a fan at each end," Franklin Daiber recalls. "And ... those pesky gulls kept dropping their clams on our roof." Every morning, he says, the men would wake to the sound of clams somersaulting down the roof with a racket that served as their alarm clock.

Yet, the group still found time to relax and enjoy one another's company. Beach parties were arranged and "brought us all together," Joanne Daiber says. "Friendships strengthened around the campfire as we got to know each other." As a single woman from New England whose "future plans did not include marriage," she says she and Franklin Daiber, who was from New York, were the two "outsiders" in the group and quickly became good friends. Their friendship soon blossomed into a courtship and then into a marriage that survives to this day.

The friendships that were built around the campfires helped foster the teamwork and camaraderie that were needed to accomplish the goals of the marine program, the Daibers say. "The conditions in these early years made for a very close-knit group," Joanne Daiber writes. "None of the early research could have been completed without the support of every warm body in the laboratory."

In 1970, the hard work and dedication of these first scientists was rewarded when the marine program, which had been part of the biology department, was formally designated as the College of Marine Studies. In the ensuing years, the Daibers saw the College's base of operations on the Newark campus and the marine studies complex in Lewes take shape, the christening of a state-of-the-art research vessel and the development of a four-program interdisciplinary graduate college. Franklin Daiber retired in 1987, after more than 30 years of service, having advised more than 50 graduate students. At his retirement, the University named the Lewes student housing complex in his honor.

"Despite the lack of such fine ships, trained crew, instruments to monitor the weather, back-up equipment in case of a breakdown, safety equipment, a decent bed and a place to sit and share a hot meal," Franklin Daiber says, "the men and women who were a part of the early days of the University of Delaware marine laboratory were equally successful in collecting marine specimens and data." Early research on such topics as shellfish, recreational fishing and the tidal marsh not only helped address the needs of Delaware and its residents but also laid the groundwork for many future studies.

Salty Memoirs: Adventures in Marine Science has been published in a limited edition of 425 copies. Cost of the two-book set is $50. Additional contributions are being accepted to support the Joanne Currier Daiber Fellowship, which her husband has established to recognize her pioneering work in marine science. It will be awarded annually to a female graduate student matriculated in the Marine Biology-Biochemistry Program.

Of special interest to book collectors are 25 deluxe editions, in which Views from the Distaff Side and Birth Pangs and Growing Pains are bound back-to-back in a single volume.

"This was a labor of love," Steven Daiber, who designed the deluxe edition, says. Daiber, an artist and naturalist who makes handcrafted books for his company, Red Trillium Press, in Williamsburg, Mass., says he has vivid memories of his parents' research and summers at the shore.

"My parents spent a lifetime looking at the Delaware Bay estuary and marveling at the mysteries of life they found," he says. "I designed this edition to provide the reader with a tactile experience in appreciating the hidden complexity and quiet beauty of the bay."

The covers of the deluxe edition are made from Spartina, a salt-marsh grass that was collected from the Canary Creek Marsh in Lewes. Steven Daiber, his 8-year-old daughter, Lilly, and Franklin Daiber's former student John L. Gallagher, professor of marine biology-biochemistry at the University, collected the grass during the summer of 1999.

Steven Daiber also designed unique prints to accentuate the deluxe editions. An embossment of a species of copepod, a tiny crustacean named after his mother, is featured on the cover of Views from the Distaff Side, while a mummichog, a fish common to Delaware tidal creeks and wetlands, is embossed on the outside cover of Birth Pangs and Growing Pains.

Initially intended as a legacy for their granddaughter, Lilly, the Daibers say that Salty Memoirs also has become a personal and professional tribute to the many people who were instrumental in forming the College. For more information about Salty Memoirs, please contact the Marine Public Education Office at [MarineCom@udel.edu] or (302) 831-8083.

--Kari Gulbrandsen