Francois M. M. Morel

2005 Maurice Ewing Medal Winner

Princeton University

François M. M. Morel received the Ewing Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on 7 December 2005, in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is given for significant original contributions to the scientific understanding of the processes in the ocean; for the advancement of oceanographic engineering, technology, and instrumentation; and for outstanding service to marine sciences.


François Morel has led the search to understand the role of metals in the ocean, starting with a focus on inorganic processes and aquatic chemistry, and leading to a blend of geochemistry, microbiology, biochemistry, and genetics. His influence comes from his research and from the way he has educated an entire community of scientists with his textbooks, with his teaching, and through his former students and postdocs who hold faculty positions at universities throughout the world.

The list of past Maurice Ewing Medal recipients includes famous geologists, geophysicists, geochemists, and oceanographers, but François is the first one from the field of biogeochemistry. François’ greatest legacy may be in helping to establish this field, and in the demonstration that biochemistry, genetics, and microbiology, in addition to aquatic chemistry and geochemistry, are critical for understanding the oceans.

For 20 years, François taught in the civil and environmental engineering department at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge]. His course on aquatic chemistry regularly drew students from engineering and Earth sciences; many comment that it was a formative experience in their training.

Over this time, François developed thermodynamic models for metal adsorption on minerals, and for metal binding to organic compounds. He demonstrated the importance of chemical speciation in modulating the uptake, toxicity, and nutrition of trace elements to aquatic microorganisms, particularly marine phytoplankton. He demonstrated, studied, and championed the role of photoredox processes—homogeneous and heterogeneous—in the aquatic chemistry, geochemistry, and biological availability of iron in the ocean. He established the principal biochemical roles of zinc, cobalt, nickel, and, unexpectedly, cadmium in marine phytoplankton.

Any one of these accomplishments would constitute a distinguished career. Taken together, what emerges is a grand vision, grounded in fundamentals of inorganic chemistry and embracing the scientific revolution in molecular biology and biochemistry. François wants to understand in a mechanistic sense how life in the ocean depends on the chemical environment, and how life shapes it. And he wants to share that vision with others.

In 1994, François moved to Princeton University [Princeton, N.J.] to develop an interdisciplinary program in marine biogeochemistry. To this end, he recruited students from five different departments, and works with them to apply his insights not only to the modern ocean, but also to the history of the oceans and life, asking why certain organisms evolved when they did, and how their appearance in turn affected the oceans.

For those who have interacted with François, it is difficult to avoid catching his infectious enthusiasm for science. He approaches scientific problems with curiosity and playfulness, bringing along his own joie de vivre and his limitless energy. His former students and postdocs are so numerous that it is difficult to count them, especially as there are many of us who refer to François as our mentor, despite never having an official affiliation. On behalf of all of those influenced by his science, his teaching, and his friendship, it is an honor to introduce him as the recipient of the 2005 Maurice Ewing Medal.

—DANIEL P. SCHRAG, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.


Thank you, Dan, for your thoughtful and much too flattering citation. You are a brilliant scientist whose energy and generosity never cease to amaze your colleagues and friends.

Unlike Dan and many readers of Eos, I was not particularly destined to be an oceanographer, or a geochemist, or even a scientist. As a young man growing up near Paris, I did not know you could make a living thinking thoughts, puttering with test tubes, talking to students, writing papers, and never doing any real work. Certainly my Dad did not know it, and he is still skeptical. But what will impress him (and I will make sure to tell him) is that the Maurice Ewing Medal is jointly sponsored by the U.S. Navy. That is an enterprise to reckon with. But fate—mostly in the form of a few people—intervened in my life. First Jim Morgan, my friend and mentor at Caltech [California Institute of Technology, Pasadena], showed me that science is fun. And my one year of study in America became 38… and counting.

Then environmental chemistry and luck landed me in the Parsons Lab at MIT. There, I was lured by the excitement of the joint program with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution [WHOI, Mass.]. And little by little I began to learn: from Penny Chisholm, who soon joined the faculty of the Parsons Lab; from the folks across the street in the Green Building; from people dwelling around Eel Pond in Woods Hole where I would drive every so often. We were all very young then, but most will remember.

Truly talented students and postdocs kept coming through, some for short stints, some for longer periods. Since I cannot name them all, I won’t name any. But many will surpass my achievements, and you will see their pictures also popping up in Eos and other publications. They made my research group a fun place to work and play, especially for me. Trite but true: They really did the work for which I am being honored today.

Over the years, it has been wonderful to benefit from the friendship and inspiration of many colleagues, near and far. I shall name only a few: Bill Sunda [U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Beaufort, N.C.] and Neil Price [McGill University, Montreal, Canada], my co-conspirators in trace metal and phytoplankton work; Ken Bruland [University of California, Santa Cruz] and Jim Moffett [WHOI], the most exacting of oceanographers, who always made room for us on their cruises; Alison Butler [University of California, Santa Barbara], who inspired me to do better chemistry; and Penny Chisholm and Bess Ward [Princeton University], who inspired me to do better biology.

Finally, I am thankful to my colleagues at Princeton, in geosciences and in other departments. They made room for a noisy and motley crew of chemists, biologists, and engineers in the midst of Guyot Hall. They inspired us to identify and tackle new problems; increasingly important, I hope; increasingly fun, I know.

I thank AGU and ONR [Office of Naval Research] for this medal, and those responsible for my nomination.

—FRANÇOIS M. M. MOREL, Princeton University