Sightings of Eugenie Clark

Eugenie Clark, via Wikimedia CommonsThe recent death of Eugenie Clark, the famous ichthyologist, was sad news, though not unexpected. After a very full and productive life, she died at 92. Her passing reminded me of an article I wrote back in 2011 that I thought I might share with you on the Science League of America. Read on.

There must not be very many Eugenies in science.

At least three or four times every year, someone addresses me as or confuses me with the famous ichthyologist Eugenie Clark—“the Shark Lady”—sometimes in quite amusing ways. We even have a section in our famous NCSE bathroom wall (where we put the “fun” correspondence, whether hate mail or the opposite) dedicated to Shark Lady sightings: mail intended for me or NCSE, but accidentally addressed to Eugenie Clark. There have even been a couple of times when I’ve been introduced as a speaker—as an expert on the creationism/evolution controversy, not on sharks—and the moderator has had a slip of the tongue and said, “So let’s welcome Eugenie Clark.”

Once at a conference, a woman came up to me, saying, “You won’t remember this, but about ten years ago, my middle-school daughter called you up because she had to interview a scientist.” (Well, yeah, which call from a student would that have been?) “She was just thrilled that you would talk to her and answer her questions. She got so much information from you, and it was all so clear and understandable.” (I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself now.) “I’ll have to tell her I met you—she still remembers how gracious you were to spend a half hour of your busy time with a student. I never forgot how kind you were to a kid.” (I’m feeling very good here.)

“Do you still dive?”

Uh-oh. Another sighting of Eugenie Clark.

So after all those nice things she said, how do I explain the situation without her feeling embarrassed? Well, I gently pointed out that our two names seem to confuse people, but although I’ve answered a lot of student calls like her daughter’s, she had spoken to the Shark Lady, not the Evolution Lady. Mom was a bit flustered, but since I obviously hadn’t taken offense, and laughed it off, so could she.

Incidents confusing the Evolution Lady with the Shark Lady abound. Teachers use a lot of National Geographic Society videos, and the charismatic Eugenie Clark, swimming fearlessly with such fearsome creatures as sharks, really gets students’ attention. And I’ve had my share of NOVA appearances, I’ve been in various other documentaries, and there’s a bunch of YouTube videos of me, so when at the National Association of Biology Teachers meeting, a teacher comes up and says, “I love your videos—I use them every year in my class,” I have learned to feel around for a little more information, just in case this is another sighting of the other Eugenie. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t: teachers like marine biology, but they also need to deal with creationism, and I’m always gratified when videos or podcasts or anything else from NCSE can help students understand this issue.

In early June, the phone rang, and the caller asked for Eugenie Clark. I chuckled and explained that Eugenie Clark is the Shark Lady, but if he wanted to talk about creationism or evolution, then Eugenie Scott is the right person, and I’d be happy to chat. There was a pause.

“I want the Shark Lady.”

Well, that’s a change. I explained that she wasn’t here, that she lived on the East Coast somewhere. “Do you have her phone number?” Well, no, but I’ll see if I can find it. I dug around a bit, gave him the number for Clark’s Mote Marine Research Institute, and he thanked me and hung up.

A bit later, I realized what might have precipitated the caller’s search. The June 2011 issue of Smithsonian magazine featured Clark’s research on whale sharks: gentle plankton-eating giants that can grow to over 45 feet long. In the article, she recalls how, when she was beginning to study whale sharks, she hitched a ride on a dorsal fin, and accompanied the huge fish as it went deeper, and deeper, and deeper still—until she realized she had better let go. (Whale sharks can dive over a mile deep!) The article related:

Clark, who is 89 and continues to do research, recalls the ride with impish delight. At one point, as we sit in her Florida office, she casually mentions a recent dive, then catches herself. “Don’t mention how deep I went,” she whispers. “I’m not supposed to do that anymore.” Then she explodes in laughter.

I don’t think I mind being confused with someone like that.

That was where I ended my 2011 article. But one final story. I found out about the death of Clark from Facebook, when a friend of mine wrote me, “I’m confessing here to misreading a headline on Why Evolution is True. I was so sad to think you had passed away. It was the wrong Eugenie. The person who died was Eugenie Clark.”

Another sighting of Eugenie Clark, and sadly, perhaps the last.

A version of this article was originally published in the print supplement to Reports of the National Center for Science Education 2011;31(3):7–8. Had you been a member in good standing of NCSE when it was published, a copy of the supplement, lovingly printed on recycled paper, would have been delivered to your mailbox, and you wouldn’t have had to wait for it to appear on the Science League of America blog. So why not take a moment to join NCSE, or renew your membership, right now? It’s only $35, $40 for foreign addresses, and $700 for a lifetime membership. Such a deal!