News Story

December 11, 2019

Remembering Jim McCarthy, 1944–2019


James J. McCarthy: January 25, 1944 – December 11, 2019

"For 40 years, Jim McCarthy was a central part of Harvard’s efforts on the environment. Jim’s own research on biological oceanography probed the nitrogen cycle in the oceans, seeking to understand how the ecology of plankton affected and was affected by nutrient cycling. But Jim’s impact went far beyond his own research. Jim promoted the best in all of us through his numerous leadership positions inside and outside of Harvard and also through his extraordinary devotion to students. Jim was Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology for twenty years (1982–2002) and served as Pforzheimer House Master (with his wife, Sue) and Head Tutor for the Environmental Science and Public Policy Concentration. Outside of Harvard, Jim served as co-Chair of Working Group 2 (Climate Change Impacts) of the 3rd Assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and as lead author for the Arctic Climate Assessment of 2004. Jim was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Board Chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a member of the U.S. Arctic Commission. He received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2018. 

Beyond his numerous professional accomplishments, I am thankful for Jim’s friendship. For many who knew him, Jim was a gentle and caring colleague who cared about the people in his life. His curiosity and joy of the world was infectious, whether his fascination with polar exploration, his love of telemark skiing and fly fishing, or simply a conversation about the state of the world over a good cup of tea. I will miss him deeply, but his wisdom and his good humor will stay with me forever."

Dan Schrag, Director, HUCE; Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, Harvard University


"From the very beginning of his scientific career, Jim understood that many of the most fascinating problems in environmental science can neither be understood nor solved without drawing on insights from multiple disciplines. He brought that insight to bear in his own choices to work in oceanography, marine biology, and climate science, where interdisciplinarity is indispensable; and he brought it bear in his work at the intersection of science with public policy, where social sciences and humanities no less than a multitude of scientific disciplines are germane. Beyond the interdisciplinarity in his own work, Jim was a highly successful evangelist for that rubric, having long used his many platforms to communicate to his students, mentees, and the wider scientific community the importance of interdisciplinary approaches both within science and at its intersection with policy. Scientist, teacher, mentor, institution builder and leader, scientific statesman—Jim McCarthy excelled in every role. It is impossible to say which of these roles he relished the most, perhaps because he understood how they all intersect."

John P. Holdren,Teresa and John Heinz Professor, Kennedy School of Government; Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; School of Engineering and Applied Science, Harvard University


"Dr. James McCarthy was an amazing man, a loyal friend, world-class oceanographer, a passionate advocate for science and for our climate balance. Nobody communicated the importance of the climate crisis in the context of the oceans as eloquently and passionately as Jim. His dedication to better understanding our planet through its oceans will continue to enable and empower us as activists, citizens, and leaders fighting to solve this crisis. I offer my deepest condolences to Sue and his family."

Al Gore, Former Vice President of the United States


"Jim was a global thinker—seamlessly integrating different disciplines to discover new insights about the ocean, climate change, and the planet. The depth and breadth of his thinking challenged and invigorated his students and colleagues alike. His joy in science was palpable; his passion for sharing scientific knowledge widely was inspiring. His lively engagement was a joy to behold, enriching everyone present. We will miss his gentle demeanor, penetrating mind, and passionate spirit." 

Jane Lubchenco, Distinguished University Professor, Oregon State University; Recipient of the Harvard GSAS Centennial Medal, 2019; Former Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA; 2009-2013); Former inaugural U.S. Science Envoy for the Ocean (2014-2016)


"In many ways, Jim was the heart and soul of the Environmental Science and Public Policy (ESPP) concentration, which he helped found and then served as head tutor for many years. In thinking of his contributions to ESPP, what stands out for me is his kindness and steady hand. Jim always had time to listen to a student (or a colleague) and his gently delivered advice would be accompanied by that wonderful twinkle in his eye. His commitment to students and to making the world a better place inspired me, and I am sure many others, to do more and to care more. The ESPP students who now carry on his work are an important part of his legacy."

Missy Holbrook, Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; Head Tutor, Environmental Science and Public Policy, Harvard University


"Jim McCarthy brought a deep sense of humanity to science, just as he brought science into the wider world of human witnessing. A complete person in so many ways—in research, in teaching, in friendship, in leadership—his knowledge, his compassion, and his honesty were inseparable. He coupled humane wisdom with profound intellectual curiosity. He knew that the largest challenges facing planetary life demand of us every kind of knowledge and resource brought together into action. In addition to all the work Jim accomplished, his name hovers, unspoken and unrecorded, in the credits of countless other articles, papers, policies, books, and experiments. He improved the lives of so many, and his memory is dear to so many hearts."

James Engell, Gurney Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature


"A gentleman, a caring mentor, a probing scholar, an inspiring advocate for the earth...Just some of the many dimensions of the wonderful Jim McCarthy that I had the good fortune to experience and through which I will both mourn and celebrate him. “

Bill ClarkHarvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development, Harvard Kennedy School


"Jim was the consummate faculty member and colleague. His dedication to science, climate policy, his teaching, and to Harvard College were truly inspiring. In particular, Jim’s unwavering commitment to interdisciplinary research and teaching about the environmental challenges facing humanity has had a profound impact on myself and many other colleagues. I will miss him greatly."

Paul Moorcroft, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University


"Jim was the kindest, sparkliest, most deeply committed person I’ve known at Harvard. Whether mentoring me on science and spirituality or on a trout stream, his gentleness of spirit, his glittering enthusiasm, his curiosity, and his love came through. When the world needs it most, a great light has gone out."

Samuel S. MyersPrincipal Research Scientist, Planetary Health, Department of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Director, Planetary Health Alliance


"Everyone who knew Jim saw his gentleness, his rock-solid integrity, his devotion to students, and his consummate skills as public scientist and Harvard citizen. Over and above all this, the Jim I knew and whose loss I mourn was my dear and loyal friend. Without his constant encouragement, there would have been no Program on Science, Technology and Society (STS) at Harvard. I will miss his wise counsel, his willingness to fight for principle, and his unstinting contributions of time and moral support whenever these were needed. His passing leaves a void that no words can possibly convey."

Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School


“Jim McCarthy was both a great citizen of science and a scientist citizen. He served in the leadership of a variety of scientific organizations, including AAAS, but also worked hard to ensure that science serves the broader purpose of advancing issues of great concern to society. As AAAS president, he led an array of activities to increase policymakers’ and public understanding of the issues surrounding climate change and helped focus the organization on both advancing science and serving society."

Alan I. Leshner, Interim Chief Executive Officer, American Association for the Advancement of Science 


"James McCarthy, Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University, was appointed to the United States Arctic Research Commission by President Obama in November 2012, and continued to serve until he passed away on December 11, 2019. He was a valuable member of the Commission who contributed to its work even when it wasn’t possible to attend meetings, by offering comments, ideas, and penetrating questions, which he did as recently as two months ago. While he was widely recognized for his scholarship and scientific leadership, he was a superb teacher and mentor....for students and for his peers. Jim had a gift for connecting science to broad human concerns for a sustainable planet and was able to use his knowledge and communication skills to help society make better decisions. He made innumerable contributions to the work of the Commission and many other organizations, and I will miss him greatly."

Fran Ulmer, Senior Fellow at the Kennedy School Belfer Center, and Chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission


Listen to Professor McCarthy reflect on his career in a 5-part podcast series recorded in February and March of 2019:

Watch the September 2019 symposium honoring Professor McCarthy:


Research Areas: 

Harvard University
Center for the Environment

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