One of San Diego’s most beloved and well-known scientists, Raymond M. Gilmore, Ph.D., was a marine biologist, mammalogist and San Diego Natural History Museum research associate for over 30 years. He is best known for his contributions to the understanding of the biology of marine mammals and was a recognized authority on whales. The San Diego community remembers Ray as the originator of whale-watching boat excursions for the public. In a tribute to Gilmore, his friend and colleague Amadeo M. Rea wrote,
Throughout his life, Ray was a person who epitomized enthusiasm, energy and thoughtfulness. He was both an engaging storyteller and a precise lecturer. An ethnobiologist before the word came into vogue, he ignored academic boundaries. Scarcely any subject in natural history and anthropology seemed to escape his scrutiny. (Rea, Journal of Ethnobiology, 1984)
Gilmore’s research on migratory patterns of whales contributed critical information for the preservation of the California gray whale. His papers and artifacts from his research career are archived in the Museum’s research library as the Raymond M. Gilmore collection on marine mammals, over 65 boxes of processed material.
Ray was born on January 1, 1907, in Ithaca, New York, where his father, John W. Gilmore, taught agronomy at Cornell University. The elder Gilmore later took a post as head of the agronomy division at the University of California, Berkeley, where Ray completed his schooling. John Gilmore was an avid outdoorsman who fostered a love of nature and exploration in his three sons.
My father always moved us to the edge of town. We walked out the back door into the woods, you might say, and were always fishing everywhere we could – legally and illegally, and hunting where we could – legally and illegally … My father would take us boys, my brothers and some of our friends, camping for two and three weeks at a time. He had this 1911 Cadillac … We’d load everything in it and head for some dirt road, which wasn’t hard to find in those days, or maybe for the Sierras. (Rea, Environment Southwest, 1984)
Gilmore earned his A.B. in zoology and anthropology in 1930 and his M.A. in zoology in 1933 from the University of California. During this period Gilmore participated in research expeditions to South America and the polar regions, including an expedition to the Arctic in 1931. After a year as a ranger naturalist at Yosemite, he attended Harvard in 1934 35 for doctoral studies as a Virginia Gibbs Fellow. At the end of the summer of 1935 he was invited to join a team of 65 scientists that would spend the next two and a half years in Brazil studying yellow fever epidemiology, under the auspices of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation. As a field zoologist he continued to investigate yellow fever in New York, Brazil and Colombia until 1941. From 1942 to 1945, as a medical entomologist he studied jungle diseases in South America, rabies in Montgomery, Alabama, and typhus and bubonic plague in Bolivia and Peru.
Gilmore married Elizabeth M. Cotter in New York (1940) and completed his Ph.D. in zoology at Cornell in 1942. Gilmore’s master’s and doctoral theses explored the Bering Sea mammalian population in relation to glaciation.
In 1944 Gilmore became associate curator of mammals for the U.S. Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. After spending two years at the Smithsonian, he returned to California as a research biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, first in the San Francisco Bay area, and from 1952-1958, at the La Jolla campus of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In 1954, Gilmore and Gifford C. Ewing discovered the gray whales’ mainland calving sites in the Gulf of California. In the early 1960s Gilmore taught biology, embryology, comparative anatomy and vertebrate zoology at California Western University and the University of Georgia. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gilmore received a National Science Foundation grant to study the migratory patterns of marine mammals. In the mid-1960s he discovered the breeding grounds of the southern right whale at Punto Valdez, on Argentina’s Atlantic coast. He kept detailed notes of whale populations, migrations and behavior and served as a consultant on marine mammals for Sea World.
Gilmore’s affiliation with the San Diego Natural History Museum began in 1953 when he joined as a member and later became a research associate. He ultimately became chairman of the Office of Marine Mammal Information. His association with the museum lasted until the end of his life. According to his son Robert Gilmore, “His main contribution to the people of southern California was to educate them about whales. He was the one who conceived of the whale-watching trips.” Gilmore originated whale-watching excursions for the general public, both on boat trips to the breeding lagoons in Baja California and later, on weekly cruises along the San Diego coast during the migration months. In the 1950s he took groups of docents from the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum to Scammon’s Lagoon, touring them around the gray whale breeding grounds in sports-fishing boats.
Gilmore was an experienced gray whale watcher, having spent five field seasons in the lagoons of Baja California and many years observing their migration off the coast of San Diego. His whale watching began with a 1927 trip to Baja in a Model T Ford. Gilmore observed the recovery of the gray whale population after the whaling period beginning in the mid-1800s drove the species to near-extinction.
Gilmore died suddenly of a heart attack on December 31, 1983, the day before his 77th birthday, as he boarded a boat to lead a whale-watching excursion off Point Loma.
“He was really a Renaissance biologist,” said his friend Charles A. McLaughlin, director of the Museum. “He was interested in whales, dolphins and porpoises and practically everything biological … He kept the most meticulous notes of everything on whales, of anyone I’ve been in contact with – measurements at whaling stations, tracings on fins, on flukes. He had the greatest mind for accumulated facts and figures. He had a great sense of humor and was a marvelous storyteller. He could even make a day in which you only saw one whale at a distance exciting.” (Jones, Los Angeles Times, 1984)
— Penny Ward, 2016. Research Library volunteer.