Dr. Edward Olson Hulburt, 91, a physicist who retired in 1955 as director of the Naval Research Laboratory and who was the senior scientist for the U.S. National Committee for the International Geophysical Year from 1957 to 1958, died of congestive heart failure Oct. 11 at his home in Easton, Md.

Dr. Hulburt joined the Naval Research Laboratory in 1924 as superintendent of its optics division. He became the laboratory's director in 1949, a post he held until retiring.

He was an authority on the optics of the sea, the physics of the upper atmosphere and terrestial magnetism. He took part in research leading to the use of polarized lenses in optical equipment to cut down glare. He served on two expeditions to Brazil in the 1940s and led expeditions to Sweden and the Sudan in the 1950s to study solar eclipses.

Dr. Hulburt was a 1945 recipient of the Navy's Distinguished Civilian Service Award. He also was awarded the Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America in 1955 and the John Adam Fleming Award of the American Geophysical Union in 1964. A year later, the Naval Research Laboratory named its space center for him.

He was a past president of the terrestial magnetism section of the American Geophysical Union and the physics section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Optical Society.

Dr. Hulburt was born in South Dakota. He was a 1911 graduate of Johns Hopkins University and earned a doctorate in mathematics and physics there in 1915. In 1980, Johns Hopkins awarded him an honorary doctorate in humane letters.

He was a captain in the Army Signal Corps in France during World War I. He taught at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Iowa and the old Western Reserve University before joining the Naval Research Laboratory.

His hobbies included sailing and playing the violin.

His wife, the former Charlotte Teresa Howell, died in 1980.

Survivors include a son, Edward MacPherson Hulburt of Woods Hole, Mass.; a daughter, Elizabeth Hulburt Chadwick of Easton, and four grandchildren.