Maxwell John Dunbar (1914-1995)

  • E.H. Grainger
Keywords: Biographies, Climate change, Dunbar, Maxwell John, 1914-1995, Marine ecology, Oceanography, Canadian Arctic, Greenland waters, Greenland Sea, Ungava, Baie d', Québec


Max Dunbar died on 14 February 1995, in his 81st year. A Scot, born in Edinburgh, he spent the first three or four years of his life there. ... In 1933, Max entered Trinity College, Oxford, to read Zoology. There he soon came under the influence of the pioneer ecologist, Charles Elton. This led to participation in the Oxford University Exploration Club, exposure to the fascination of Greenland, and an invitation to join a group set up to map a section of the western Greenland coast. The expedition reached Greenland in August 1935, and so began Max's lifelong involvement with the Arctic. A second visit in 1936 confirmed his interest in marine biology, the main thrust of his later career. ... The advent of the war caused Canada and others to recognize the strategic importance of Greenland. As a result, the first Canadian consulate in Greenland was opened in 1940. In 1942, Max became Canada's third consular representative there. He remained in Greenland until 1943, and returned later for two further postings, which ended in 1946. Along with consular duties, Max was able to accomplish considerable work on the oceanography of western Greenland fjords. ... On his return from Greenland to Montreal, Max joined the Department of Zoology at McGill. He was almost immediately approached by the Fisheries Research Board of Canada to begin a marine study in the Canadian eastern Arctic. With a graduate student from McGill, Max started in Ungava Bay in 1947 what was to become a continuing program of oceanographic study extending throughout the Canadian Arctic. ... Max taught in the Department of Zoology at McGill from 1946 until 1963. He directed the Marine Sciences Centre at McGill from 1963 until 1977, and its successor, the Institute of Oceanography, from 1978 until his official retirement and appointment as Professor Emeritus in 1982. Evidence that "retirement" did not signify the end of his working life is given by the appearance of at least 32 publications dated 1983 and later, and by his role as a founding member and an active participant in the Centre for Climate and Global Change Research at McGill from 1990 until only months before his death. ... Max's career in research spanned nearly 60 years and was mainly related to the sea. He developed a classification of ecological zonation in northern seas which has stood well the tests of time. He advanced study of the structure of polar marine ecosystems, and added much to our understanding of marine climatic change. He pioneered work on the probable importance of natural selection at the ecosystem level, that is, on a scale above the level of species selection, and this was not without controversy. He engaged in many studies on marine biogeography in northern seas, often with emphasis on the importance of dispersal routes of the past. ... He was a man whose influence was felt far and wide and will long remain.