Answer Man Pinpoints Navy's Renowned Mapmaker
Signs have appeared around 23rd and D streets NW reading "To Maury Circle." They point toward Navy Hill, home of the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. My question is: Who was Maury?
-- Buck Shinkman, Bethesda
Let's do a multiple-choice quiz. After whom is Maury Circle named?
a) Maury Povich, daytime TV talk show host and main squeeze of Connie Chung
b) Maury Amsterdam, wise-cracking "Dick Van Dyke Show" co-star
c) Matthew Fontaine Maury, the father of modern oceanography
Um, it's C. Born in 1806 near Fredericksburg and raised in Tennessee, Matthew Fontaine Maury followed an older brother into the U.S. Navy. His early voyages took him to Europe, around Cape Horn and through the Pacific. He was often irritated that books of the time did not accurately describe the winds and currents he encountered on his journeys.
In 1839, the stagecoach Maury was riding in overturned, and he fractured his leg. The limb was set poorly, and Maury limped for the rest of his life. It's hard enough to walk on the pitching deck of a ship with two good legs. With a bum leg, Maury's shipboard naval career was over.
But that accident may have been the greatest thing to happen to Maury. Far from stifling his curiosity about the sea, it forced him to explore it from behind a desk. In 1844, he became the head of the Navy's Depot of Charts and Instruments, located in a brand-new observatory built atop a hill in Foggy Bottom.
Maury scrutinized ship captains' logbooks, taking note of winds and currents. He asked that captains take detailed measurements of what they experienced on their travels and report back to him. In 1847, Maury compiled the first wind and current charts for the North Atlantic. By taking advantage of his detailed charts, a captain could cut a voyage from Boston, around Cape Horn and to San Francisco from 130 days to 100 days. Not for nothing was Maury dubbed "Pathfinder of the Sea."