I knew Lewis Eugene Cronin for 30 years. Most people knew Gene as a scientist and public figure, but what I will always remember are his many years of instruction on how to be a gentleman in science. I won’t repeat what others have said in tribute since his passing but will offer instead a historical perspective of this advocate for the Bay.
As a plankton biologist, I studied estuarine science through a microscope. This tool — one of the earliest in what we consider “modern” science — was pioneered by Anton van Leewenhoek [1632 -1723]. Before van Leewenhoek died, one William Cronin had settled on land which has today been absorbed into the southeast corner of the Aberdeen U.S. Army Proving Ground at Aberdeen, MD.
By the 19th century, optical specialists had rapidly improved the resolution of microscopic capabilities, which increasingly revealed the beauty and complexity of life beyond our unaided vision.
The microscope was not only a tool, but sometimes the plaything of physicians, many of whom were multitalented mathematicians, systematists and artists. It was a time when art, curiosity and emerging science blended beautifully. These men not only had the leisure, but the curiosity, to explore the natural world. They were “natural philosophers.”
One group, led by physician Joseph Leidy, formed an association in 1812, that is known today as the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. In the Academy’s archives are exquisite India ink drawings of plankton cells from the sea, revealed first through the microscope, then rendered with intricate geometric precision.
Many of these cells were diatoms, microscopic plants encased in transparent glass houses, or frustules, which protect the living cell material within while allowing sunlight, so necessary for photosynthesis, to stream in. These tiny cells are the building blocks for all of the abundant life in the seas, where they are filtered from the water by animal plankton, fish and shellfish, which in turn become fodder for ever larger, and increasingly important commercial species.
In the 19th century, a growing population in increasingly wealthy urban centers in eastern North America began to demand food from increasingly distant suppliers. Fishermen along the East Coast, indented with rich estuaries like the Delaware and Chesapeake, developed technologies to meet that demand. The oyster dredge and steam engine would soon ravage the Chesapeake’s ancient shellfish beds. Crabs often came up in those dredges and would, ultimately, be tapped as a living resource.
The Cronin family, meanwhile, joined the great annual harvest of shad and herring waves that came up from the sea each spring to reproduce.
At the same time, U.S. industry was hurrying ahead with technology that would strip other natural resources at a rate faster than science could understand their wise management. The moldboard plow, and then fertilizers, would revolutionize agriculture and vastly accelerate soil erosion. The network of canals and railroads would rapidly deplete millions of acres of eastern and northeastern forests, pushing the frontier into Ohio, Michigan and the rim of the Great Plains. About 2,500 dams, serving one group of commercial interests and industries, would eventually impede — and virtually stop — the migration of anadromous fishes, thus putting an end to a significant earlier industry based on Bay resources.
L. Cooper Dize of Somers Cove, MD, having experimented with dredging crabs for about 20 years, patented the toothed “crab scrape” in 1870. The start of a crabbing industry, though, is credited to former senator — and railroad tycoon — John Woodland Crisfield. He was influential in having a railhead pushed south along the Delmarva Peninsula about 1873. It then became possible to ship live, iced, soft-shell crabs to relatively distant Baltimore and Philadelphia. The town of Somers Cove became Crisfield, which became the “Crab Capitol of the Eastern Shore.”
The Civil War stimulated technology for preserving food to support troops in the field. Tinned or canned food opened markets in an era before mechanical refrigeration. The McMenamin Company, in Hampton, VA, is thought to be the earliest commercial processor of hard crab meat separated from the shell or “picked” and “canned” in tins to preserve it for shipment without ice.
Meanwhile, George Washington Baker, on Spesutie Island near the Susquehanna’s mouth, seized upon this technology and founded a prosperous canning company. (His son, William Benjamin Baker, would be elected to the U.S. Congress from Harford County, MD.) Canning around the Upper Bay not only drew upon the rich agricultural produce of Maryland soils, but also the immense shad and herring harvests.
From the 19th well into the 20th century, the acquisition of knowledge about life in the seas went on, not only in Philadelphia, but all over the world. Much was the work of naturalists, who were still describing species as they were revealed to science in wonderful volumes of drawings laboriously drawn in pen and ink.
At the same time, science as a whole had failed to anticipate the coming ground-swell of water pollution from industry and agriculture. There were exceptions, and about 1919, a brash, young university instructor named Reginald van Trump Truitt set up a tiny fisheries laboratory in a shack on the waterfront at Solomons Island, about halfway between the Susquehanna and the Virginia Capes.
As Truitt’s work progressed, it revealed pollution problems and stress on the fisheries, and he deftly pressured the political process for support. His little lab moved into donated and shared space in a church building on Solomons Island.
Truitt made early survey runs up and down the Bay revealing its mysteries, studying its fisheries. Decades later, he recalled that at that time, it had been in quite fine condition … except that as one passed Baltimore, the signal of coming problems was clearly evident, a disturbed region along the north-south axis of rich Bay resources. Over the decades, his struggling laboratory was eventually forged into the Natural Resources Institute of Maryland.
Lewis Eugene Cronin was born in 1917, in the middle of World War I. His father was one of one of the first graduates of the Maryland Dental School and his mother was the daughter of Harford Congressman William Baker. Gene was raised in Aberdeen, in a family with deep ties to the Chesapeake. I was born in 1938, the year he graduated from college and began a professional career that would stretch over six decades — half of the entire history of the commercial crabbing industry that would ultimately owe him such a debt of gratitude.
I became a biologist, and in 1971 was hired by the Academy of Natural Sciences as an assistant curator to work on plankton ecology. I had been attending Chesapeake conferences since 1968 and was immediately struck by the strong, sometimes serious, rivalry among the Bay’s three major scientific institutions. The Chesapeake Bay Institute of Johns Hopkins University was run by no-nonsense physicist Dr. Donald Pritchard. The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (then part of Maryland’s Natural Resources Institute) was run by courtly Dr. L. Eugene Cronin, who had succeeded Reginald Truitt in 1955, taking the “shoes of the fisherman” as this laboratory’s second director. The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences was run by Dr. William Hargis. Coming from a narrow academic discipline, I was amazed by the spirited competition among these powerful men which, at the end of the day, was for money and the ability to do research that it funded.
The Academy of Natural Sciences, for which I worked, was at that time heavily under contract to some of the region’s most powerful industries; oil, chemical and electric utilities. Although such relationships are common and accepted today, in the middle 1960s, this source of funding was new, and we at the small field station at Benedict on the Patuxent River were suspect in the eyes of many (even though our work funded other kinds of science elsewhere in the Academy). Gene Cronin, not very privately, called us “biostitutes” a term which I later used many times, tongue-in-cheek, to describe my situation.
As Bay populations of sea grasses, rockfish (striped bass Morone saxatilis), and oysters plummeted in the face of man-induced environmental change, the blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) on which Gene Cronin had focused his career became one of the Bay’s most valuable products. Concern about negative impacts on this resource were not only significant for watermen, but also for power plants, which were inadvertently captured crabs (and other aquatic organisms) during the pumping of cooling water. Living resources, in general, became a rallying cause in the defense of a declining Bay.
When U.S. Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias traveled to the various laboratories doing homework which would later help to establish the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, he visited our facility as well. I remember sitting with him in 1973 and talking about the Bay’s problems. Mathias said, as we parted: “You’ll be hearing from me again.” We did, of course, hear from him when Congress announced that the EPA would receive the unheard of sum of $5 million annually for the next half decade, to study the Bay’s problems and propose their solutions.
But, competition for science resources was very serious, and in the final analysis, the money was largely parceled out among the Bay’s traditional custodians including CBI, CBL and VIMS. Only a single portion of grant dollars went to the Academy.
At the Academy’s Benedict field laboratory, all of us struggled to balance good science and the regulatory data needs of our powerful clients. Many of the studies we did for industry had federally funded counterparts at the universities. Dave Flemer was working on the Bay’s rich base of phytoplankton productivity, the fertile “field” upon which much of the estuary’s rich fishery depended. My staff and I worked on the same thing, but also looked for possible impacts from three major power plants on the food chain. Dave and I communicated often: We worked together on some marathon 24-hour studies and shared data when Tropical Storm Agnes swept over the watershed. I also got to know his boss, Gene Cronin, and began to speak for the reputation of my Academy colleagues as sincere, hard-working scientists.
In 1978, after seven years of work, we all had so much data at our institutions, that we simply had to share it. An all-day symposium connecting CBL scientists and we “biostitutes” was arranged. By the time the symposium was over, a lot of opinions about each other had been changed.
I had made the luncheon presentation, an eight-minute slide and sound show featuring the beauty of Beethoven and the Bay. Gene Cronin came up to me afterward to let me how much it had touched him and it was at this point that we became personal friends.
The tendency of the traditional Bay custodian institutions to vie among themselves for money, even when one or another institution might have the best expertise for a specific component of the work eventually led to the formation of the Chesapeake Research Consortium, with Gene Cronin as its first director after his retirement from CBL. The Consortium became a fair and efficient way to share resources and produce a single, good proposal rather than “puffing” less appropriate resumes on three or more costly proposals from separate institutions. There was less posturing and far more intellectual sharing among the participants. Today, the Academy of Natural Sciences and Old Dominion University are also full partners in the Consortium.
When I started working more directly on the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program effort in 1979, Gene Cronin repeatedly advised and advocated a consistent, core monitoring program for the estuary. Thanks to him and others like David Flemer, a relatively strong monitoring effort has continued for one-and-a-half decades. Gene also provided an extraordinary historical perspective at a time when mathematical models were thought a sufficient tool to make decisions for the future. He took me to Romancoke on Kent Island to meet Reginald van Trump Truitt, then in his 90s. Truitt held court, waving an afternoon highball in one hand while telling me about his earliest days on the Bay, surrounded by photos of senators, congressmen and governors who had studded his long career. Gene eagerly shared and encouraged my personal interest in Chesapeake environmental history and introduced me to Arthur Pierce Middleton who, now an octogenarian, is still one of tidewater’s greatest historians. (His classic, “Tobacco Coast,” published in 1953, was reprinted a third time in 1994 by The Johns Hopkins Press [ISBN 0-8018-2534-2].)
The bitter rivalry between Don Pritchard "Mr. Estuary” and Gene Cronin "Mr. Chesapeake" mellowed into a cordial friendship over the years. Pritchard has several times told the story where once he was approached by a political figure who remarked: “You and Cronin disagree much less than you used to. What’s happening? Getting soft?”
Don rejoined: “No. Pliny once said that truth is the simplest story which saves all the facts. Over the years, as science has revealed more and more facts about the Chesapeake, Gene’s stories and mine have come closer together.”
Edward McNall Burns’ “Western Civilizations, Their History and Their Culture” speaks about Pliny the Elder, who, in A.D. 77 wrote “Natural History,” a voluminous “encyclopedia of science.” Burns says: “...(Pliny’s) work was of limited value... (because he) was totally unable to distinguish fact from fable.” I don’t know what Don Pritchard would say about this, but I’m sure, Gene Cronin is out there somewhere having a good laugh.