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Eugenie Clark, "The Shark Lady"

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 7/9/2024

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

The New York City Aquarium opened its doors in 1896 in what had once been the Castle Garden Emigrant Depot. The huge open spaces and impressive rotunda that had once welcomed immigrants from Germany, Sweden, France, and Russia had been transformed to house salmon, sea turtles, harbor seals, and sturgeon.  “Crowds See the Fishes,” declared headlines in The Sun on Dec. 11, 1896. “Nearly 14,000 Persons, Big and Little, Help to Jam the Opening Day—the Seals Hot Favorites, the Sharks a Close Second—Fine Sights in the Glass Tanks.”

Despite missing information placards and scarce fish, the aquarium was a success—it’s free entry probably helped—and the aquarium would live in the Battery Park area of Manhattan until the 1950s. (It would later be moved to its current location in Coney Island.) An estimated two million people visited the aquarium during its first two years. Hundreds of thousands of school children walked through the rotunda or stared at the crustacean tank.

One Saturday in 1931, a mother bound for work to sell cigars and newspapers at the Downtown Athletic Club dropped her 9-year-old daughter off at the familiar, popular building. The girl was to amuse herself until her mother came to meet her for lunch. Amuse herself she did. In fact, the little girl found the amusement of a lifetime.


Eugenie “Genie” Clark was born in New York City on May 4, 1922, to Yumico Motomi and Charles Clark. Charles died when Genie was two years old, so throughout much of her childhood, it was just her, her mother, and a few extended family members. 

Genie and her mother shared a love of the water. Indeed, the whole family did. Genie recalled many childhood days at the beach or the swimming pool. “My uncle did fancy diving,” Genie wrote in Lady with a Spear, her 1953 autobiography. “I’d call my friends over to watch him and talk loudly so everyone could hear: ‘There’s my uncle. Watch him now, he’s going to do a somersault.’”

Her admiration for her mother, who once worked as a swim teacher, was quieter and more reverent. “When she came out of the water, she would take off her bathing cap, and her jet black hair, which she usually wore pinned up in conservative Japanese fashion, fell down to her hips…[S]he looked like a pearl diver of the Orient. When I overheard admiring remarks the strangers made about her, I didn’t claim her as I did my uncle; I just listened quietly, secure in the knowledge that soon she would call me over and everyone would know she was my mother.”

While Genie didn’t excel at swimming like Yumico, she nevertheless enjoyed the water. That Saturday at the aquarium refined her passion. “All about me were glass tanks with moving creatures in them. At the back was a tank larger than the others and the water in it was less clear, more mysterious,” she wrote. “Leaning over the brass railing, I brought my face as close as possible to the glass and pretended I was walking on the bottom of the sea.”

When her mother picked her up, Genie asked to go again next Saturday, then the Saturday after that, “and all the Saturdays that followed. I never tired of watching the fish.”

Genie started what she would call a “menagerie” at home, including hundreds of fish, reptiles, and toads. She studiously learned their scientific names, and recorded the span and events of their lives.

Genie attended elementary school in the Woodside area of Queens. In 2011, she told Art Levy for Florida Trend, “In school, when we had to write English compositions, my teacher would tell me, ‘You know, it's so strange. No matter what topic I give you to write on, you always manage to swing it so that it concerns fish.’” She became the youngest member of the Queens County Aquarium Society. Well into her adulthood, she still recalled specific happenings between the fish she had in her youth, such as the mating behaviors of her Siamese fighting fish. 

She graduated from Bryant High School in Queens. She then enrolled at Hunter College in Manhattan, just a few blocks from Central Park where, “naturally, I majored in zoology,” with her sights set on being a professional ichthyologist—that is, someone devoted to the study of fish. But it was not even 1940 and mother Yumico had some worries about the path her daughter had chosen. “‘Maybe you’d better take a few courses in typing and shorthand on the side,’” Genie recalled her mother saying. “‘…you might get a start as some famous ichthyologist’s secretary.’ But school, homework, and my hobby didn’t leave me time for side courses and she didn’t press me further.”

Eugenie Clark examines a specimen. Photo courtesy Mote Marine Laboratory. 

Yumico’s concerns were not unfounded. Most of the other women of note in the field of ichthyology, such as Helen Battle, Margaret Brown, Louella E. Cable, were contemporaries. As Genie pursued her education and her passion for fish in the 1930s and 1940s, they were doing the same. Rosa Smith Eigenmann, who is believed to be the first female ichthyologist in the United States, co-authored papers with her husband throughout the 1890s. Raising their family delayed her individual study, however, and its uncertain how far she might have been permitted to advance as a solo researcher. According to the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, “In the early years of the Society, the role of women was largely limited to assisting men in research and administration,” until Helen Thompson Gaige, who rose to prominence in 1937.

In the late 1930s, an independent female ichthyologist such as Genie hoped to be was something quite new. 

At Hunter College, she became notable for her pet snakes, even convincing the Dean of the school to let her keep them in the dorms by proving they weren’t “slimy.” Unfortunately, jobs after she graduated in 1942 were in short supply. “The Second World War was well under way,” she wrote. “Industries were booming with war work and there was a shortage of men. The Want Ads were filled with opportunities for young and inexperienced majors in chemistry, physics, and mathematics, but there were very few offers for zoolologists.” 

To earn money, Genie tried her hand at chemistry and joined a research laboratory in Newark. In the summers, she studied at the University of Michigan Biological Station, located on 10,000 acres of the south shore of Douglas Lake. According to Andrea Stone, writing for National Geographic, “She had hoped to attend Columbia University, her first choice for postdoctoral studies, but a scientist there told her, ‘If you do finish, you will probably get married, have a bunch of kids, and never do anything in science after we have invested our time and money in you.’”

But in fact, it was science itself that proved to be the most enduring love of Genie’s life. In 1942, both mother and daughter married—Yumico for the second time to Masatomo Nobu (who owned the restaurant Genie and her mother would visit after the aquarium on Saturdays) and Genie for the first to Jideo Umaki. This first marriage would end in divorce in 1947. In total, Genie would marry five times throughout her life, the longest to Ilias Themistokles Konstantinu for 17 years. Most of her marriages ended in divorce, often after fewer than two years. Her marriage to Henry Yoshinobu Kon ended when he died by suicide in 2000. She would have four children—Hera, Aya, Themistokles, and Nikolas. 

When working throughout the year, Genie continued her education at New York University, where she “never failed to sit through wide awake” a course taught by a professor who had once been the Director at the New York Aquarium she’d visited as a child. Professor Charles M. Breder, Jr. would go on to sponsor Genie’s Master’s degree research project. She also credited him with her introduction to plectognaths, the order of fish that would become her primary research focus. Plectognaths include fish with unusual or atypical body types, such as boxfishes known for their square-ish shape, pufferfishes which are more rotund and spherical, and the compressed-bodied filefishes. 

Her love for these fish radiates off the pages of her 1953 book. “Did you ever hear of a fish without a tail?” she wrote. “Only the Order of Plectognati can boast of such an oddity. If you see a tailless monster way out at sea, floating motionlessly on its side, basking in the sun and looking like a small barren island—then you are looking at a molid, or what is more popularly called an ocean sunfish.”

Eugenie’s books are illustrated with her own drawings of her discoveries. 

Her passion and intelligence did not go unnoticed. She soon left New York to work as a part-time research assistant, a paid position that would allow her to begin work on her Ph.D. from the University of California San Diego. It was here, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, off the UCSD Scripps Pier upon the La Jolla shores, that Genie went scuba diving for the first time.

She was the assistant of Dr. Carl L. Hubbs, whose enthusiasm for the sea matched Genie’s own, and whose comfort with diving helped her through her nerves. “Be sure to shake hands with them as they pass,” he told her, when she was frightened to be so close to a school of porpoises. 

At the aquarium, she’d imagined walking on the bottom of the sea. Now, equipped with a heavy diving helmet she wore with her swimsuit, 20-year-old Genie did it for real.

“The kelp was thick around me. It was dark and cold and indeed eerie. I headed for a more open sandy area, shimmering in filtered sunlight,” she wrote. “The sand suddenly moved under my foot and a flounder scurried out of my way.” Her oxygen came from a line fastened to the boat overhead where Carl and other divers assisted. She tugged for more slack so she could explore further. “Walking toward the dark mass, I got close enough to see that it was a cluster of rocks. It had holes in it like windows, and lovely lavender sea anemones, abalones, shellfish, and sponges decorated it. It was like coming across a gingerbread house in this water forest, but there was no telling what witch of the sea might live here. I decided not to get too close.”

A mishap with the line meant Genie was rapidly losing oxygen during this first dive. After nearly losing consciousness, she surfaced to the panicked and worried men. “Just like a girl to screw the valve the wrong way and cut off her air,” she heard someone say. But closer inspection revealed the error hadn’t been hers. “The air line just above the helmet had been recently mended with a garden hose attachment and this had come loose.” 

Worried and sympathetic, Carl had a more pragmatic view. “It’s an awful thing to have happen on your first dive,” Genie quoted him saying. “There’s only one way to erase such an experience.” After a rest, Genie went diving again that same day, and soon the image of this lone woman diving with her spear to collect sample fish would become a familiar sight. 

In 1949, Genie left California for Indonesia to study the fish populations of Micronesia for the Office of Naval Research. Her studies and research over the years took her to Guam, Hawaii, the West Indies, then back to New York (lodging for the often sole female researcher was only occasionally hard to come by). She worked to finish her degree, while also accepting as many research opportunities as came her way. She earned a Fulbright Scholarship in 1951 to study fish in the Red Sea from a small laboratory in Hurghada, Egypt. 


“I was never lonely,” wrote Genie, who developed a passion for the Arabic language, finding it so different from her childhood lessons of Japanese. “The days were so full of things to do, I could never find time for everything. It always amused me when a visitor came to see the Marine Station and, discovering I was living alone in this remote place, took pity on me and suggested various things I might do to kill time!” Her husband Ilias often sent long letters, keeping her informed of all the goings-on with family and friends back home. 

Her first book, Lady with a Spear, was published in 1953. Its pages are a dynamic mix of autobiographical stories and a hand-holding walk through the questions her research sought to answer, illustrated by Genie’s own line drawings of the marine life she encountered and photos from her trips. One chapter notes the unique puffing feature of Pufferfish, wherein they “inhale” water, not air, and how that might differ from a similar puffing in the swell shark. By what biological mechanism did each of these animals puff, and why? The pufferfish did it to evade predators, but what predator hunted a shark and why would the shark have this ability? Another chapter explored the evolution and function of fish eyes. 

Lady with a Spear earned Genie some impressive fans, including Anne and William H. Vanderbilt, who attended one of her speaking events on her Red Sea discoveries. They were “a handsome couple, tall, dignified, yet with an easy manner, a sense of humor, and an enthusiasm for life and people,” Genie wrote later. With the Vanderbilts, Genie explored the water ways of Florida and found lots of curious questions worth exploring, some of them similar to those she found in the Red Sea.

Eugenie kept diving throughout her life. Photo courtesy Mote Marine Laboratory.

  The Vanderbilts agreed. They funded a laboratory for Genie in Placida along Florida’s southwest coast in the waters of Gasparilla Sound. In 1955, “I opened the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory as soon as I arranged for a babysitter for two-year-old Hera and her month-old sister Aya.” 

“I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to start a laboratory from scratch,” she said. “And there were no strings attached, no contract; I didn’t have to make any promises. Just ‘Start a place here where people can learn more about the sea’ was all the Vanderbilts asked of me.” Having spent years as a researcher, Genie knew well the struggle of continually seeking funding, making one’s case to the purse holders, desperately trying to get the most out of the resources one had. She treasured deeply the freedom found at Cape Haze. 

“It is hard for many people to understand the basic scientist’s desire to learn the answer to a question just for the sake of new knowledge,” she wrote. “Sometimes a basic research scientist does not finish his studies in a lifetime. Sometimes many lifetimes are put in by many investigators before one person works out the last part of a problem. Years later, it may prove to have an unforeseen and wonderful practical application; or it may just rest—an exquisite piece of knowledge appreciated by only a few specialists or people with vision.”

It was husband Ilias who brought sharks to Genie’s attention. In the final chapters of Lady with a Spear, she recalled how “Ilias became very much interested in sharks,” during their honeymoon trip to, of course, admire fish. “He was surprised to learn how harmless many of the species are.”

The title of her second book, The Lady and the Sharks, published in 1969, shows that interest only grew in the intervening years. “The things we were learning about sharks and our success in keeping sharks in captivity drew the attention of scientists from various parts of the world who were interested in problems related to sharks,” she wrote. “They came from Africa, Germany, Italy, Israel, England, France, Denmark, and Japan to work with us.” 

Genie’s studies changed the widespread understanding of sharks. They were largely believed to be “dumb eating machines,” as Genie once described them to a friend. She, alongside a team at Cape Maze, devised a contraption that demonstrated that sharks could be trained to hit a target with their snouts to receive food. “We started dropping the reward food farther and farther away from the target, giving the sharks only 10 seconds to get the food after the bell sounded,” she said. “This was to test their ability to learn to make a correct turn.” The sharks further showed their intelligence by forcing Genie to revise the test: Female sharks would simply circle the area where the food was often dropped, then wait to take the food after the males hit the target. 

Genie left the Cape Maze laboratory in 1966. With her marriage to Ilias ending, and the demands of the laboratory only increasing, she needed a change. Leaving the laboratory in capable hands, she took a teaching position at the City University of New York before relocating with her children in 1968 to teach in Maryland. She was excited about working with “the challenging young adults who look to me to teach them ichthyology at the University of Maryland. What abdominal or abominable pore will perplex them? Which of my children or students will be diving with me next summer when we exchange a communication without words and exclamations of only tones and bubbles at some wondrous sight we shall see together on the bottom of the Red Sea?” she wrote at the end of The Lady and the Sharks.

During her career, Genie authored over 175 articles on marine life, published in a multitude of journals, with titles like “Functional Hermaphroditism and Self-Fertilization in a Serranid Fish,” “Instrumental Conditioning of Lemon Sharks,” Notes on the Inflating Power of the Swell Shark, Cephaloscyllium uter,” and “A Method for Artificial Insemination in Viviparous Fishes.” When Jaws came out in theaters in 1975, stirring up the fear and hunting of sharks, she penned an article for National Geographic titled, “Sharks: Magnificent and Misunderstood.” She taught at the University of Maryland until she retired in 1999. 

Never one to stop exploring, however, she returned to the Cape Maze lab, which was renamed the Mote Marine Laboratory in 1967. Her discoveries changed the landscape of shark research. She discovered the Moses sole, a fish capable of producing a natural shark repellent, and have you ever heard the myth that sharks have to be constantly moving or they’ll die? Genie proved that one wrong, too, when she “dived into caves off the coast of Mexico to examine sharks that were suspended under water—local fishermen called them ‘sleeping sharks,’” according to Elaine Woo for the Los Angeles Times. “She made another important contribution when she led a group that found a pregnant whale shark off the coast of Taiwan. When they dissected it they discovered it was carrying 300 babies, a revelation for scientists who until then did not know how that species reproduced.”

“My health is not too good,” Genie told Florida Trend in 2011. “I have lung cancer, but I never smoked a cigarette in my life. In 2004, they told me I had four to six months to live. ... I'm pushing 90, but I still come to work every day that I don't have a doctor's appointment or feel too sick from the chemo.” She published her last paper just two weeks before her death on Feb. 25, 2015 at age 92, and she was still diving. 

Her obituaries share stories from fellow divers of her wildest adventures, such as leaping off a boat and clinging to a 50-foot whale shark in the Sea of Cortez. Mote Marine Laboratory runs to this day as an independent, non-profit research facility. “We are the ocean’s champions—the best and brightest scientists, educators and stewards committed to healthy marine ecosystems and all those who depend on them,” their website declares. “Our mission began in 1955 when pioneering scientist and ‘Shark Lady’ Dr. Eugenie Clark founded a one-room marine lab in Florida. Today, our impact spans the globe.”

In 2018, scientists named a new species of shark after her. “The species, named Squalus clarkae, also known as Genie’s Dogfish, was identified from the Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic Ocean,” reads the report from Florida Institute of Technology News. One of the discoverers, Dr. Toby Daly-Engel, a professor at Florida Tech in Ocean Engineering and Marine Sciences, said of Genie, “She is the mother of us all. She was not just the first female shark biologist, she was one of the first people to study sharks.”

In a post titled “We lost the ‘Shark Lady’ Eugenie Clark,” fellow shark diver Martin Graf shared his farewells. “Thank you, Eugenie, for your passion and inspiration. I hope you're out there exploring new worlds.”


The Sun: Friday, Dec. 11, 1869

National Park Service: Castle Garden Emigrant Depot

Lady with a Spear by Eugenie Clark

The Lady and the Sharks by Eugenie Clark

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium

Los Angeles Times: Eugenie Clark dies at 92; Respected scientist swam with sharks

Wikipedia: Eugenie ClarkNew York AquariumMote Marine LaboratoryUniversity of Michigan Biological Station

BioOne Digital Library: Evolution of the Role of Women in the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists

Florida Trend: Icon: Eugenie Clark We lost the “Shark Lady” Eugenie Clark

Florida Tech news: New Shark Species Honors Female Pioneer