Michael E. Q. Pilson

  • Emeritus Professor of Oceanography
  • Marine and Atmospheric Chemistry
  • Phone: 401.874.6104
  • Email: pilson@uri.edu
  • Office Location: 323 Coastal Institute Building


From nuclear bomb testing sites in the South Pacific to the placid waters of Narragansett Bay, Dr. Michael E.Q. Pilson has had a scientific career that is as diverse as it was spatially expansive.

Pilson, emeritus professor of oceanography, started his research career when he was a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography where a researcher accidently killed a lactating female sea lion. He brought in a rather dirty bottle of sea lion milk and, noting Pilson’s biochemistry background, asked him to analyze the sample. To Pilson’s surprise, the sea lion milk lacked lactose, a normal component in most mammals’ milk. This led to a published paper that caught the eye of pediatricians at the Stanford Medical Institute who were working with babies unable to process certain sugars. The collaboration revealed that sea lions don’t have lactase, an enzyme needed to process lactose, and hence that explained the lack of lactose in sea lions’ milk. The findings also provided explanations to other marine mammal experts who at times had tried to save orphaned sea lions by giving them milk with lactose but were puzzled by the young sea lions getting diarrhea and dying.

The sea lion milk study led to another project on the composition of walrus milk. Delving into this area was complicated because under international law, no white men could kill a female walrus—they were protected species that only Eskimos could kill; walrus meat is a staple in Eskimo diet. So Pilson set out to the Arctic and lived for six weeks in an Eskimo village as the natives went out on walrus hunts. Finally a lactating female walrus was captured and provided a milk sample—“sure enough no lactose in walrus milk either”.

Pilson was also captivated by the way octopuses attack abalone shells. It was commonly thought that octopuses simply wrap themselves around abalone and use the suction cups on their arms to pry open the shells. Not so, Pilson discovered. Octopuses use their radula—a ribbon of tissue with sharp teeth—to drill a tiny hole in the abalone shell and then inject a poison that disables the muscle keeping the shell tightly closed. “That was a fun project,” says Pilson. He then decided it was “time to make an honest living” and Dean John Knauss offered him a marine chemist position at GSO.

A couple of papers on silica and iron in seawater were followed by a unique opportunity to join a multi-investigator research project on coral reefs in the South Pacific on a floating laboratory to quantitatively assess some physiological functions, such as oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide generation. On the atoll of Eniwetok, site of several nuclear bomb tests before atmospheric nuclear testing was banned, and by then with safe radiation levels, researchers could use leftover structures to accommodate their instruments and gear. Pilson recalls SCUBA explorations of the craters left by the bombs, checking for sea life.

One of Pilson’s most involved projects was the construction and operation of the Marine Ecosystems Research Laboratory (MERL), an array of 14 5.5-m deep tanks on a wharf adjacent to Narragansett Bay. Funded by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1976, the MERL facility was home to short and long-term studies designed to observe ecosystems under the influence of hydrocarbon, enhanced nutrients, different nutrient ratios, sewage sludge and effluents, polluted sediments, salinity gradients and stratification. Many short-term experiments were conducted to observe the behavior of individual hydrocarbons, trace metals and animal species, such as larval fish. Pilson was director of the facility for the first 10 years and the array of tanks gave researchers an insight on how Narragansett Bay functions metabolically. For example, the system could demonstrate how long an introduced chemical lasts in the bay—an experiment that could not be performed in a typical aquarium.

The MERL operation is being phased down as funding has lapsed, but it and Pilson’s other works live on. In particular his book “Chemistry of the Sea,” is a staple textbook in its second edition (2013). Although officially retired since 2000, Pilson still occasionally teaches to help out other GSO scientists. He still maintains his office—with a great view of Narragansett Bay—and stays in touch with many of his former graduate students. In retirement, he and his wife, Joan, enjoy gardening (she is an expert on wild plants) and travel.


Marine and Atmospheric Chemistry 

Michael Pilson’s current interest include the chemistry of seawater, carbon dioxide, biochemistry and physiology of marine organisms, and nutrient cycling. Research interests have included a variety of topics going back more than 50 years: milk and physiology of marine mammals, physiology of snails and corals and coral reefs, marine chemistry (nutrients and sediment-water interactions), and the ecology of large marine mesocosms. 

  • The most significant thing I did in the last while was to publish a textbook: Pilson, Michael E.G. 2013. Introduction to the Chemistry of the Sea, 2nd Edition Cambridge University Press, 524 pp. 


Ph.D., Marine Biology, University of California, San Diego, 1964 

M.S., Agricultural Biochemistry, McGill University, Canada, 1959

B.S., Chemistry-Biology, Bishop’s University, Canada, 1954

Selected Publications

Soffientino, Bruno and Michael E. Q. Pilson. 2005.
The Bosporus Strait: A special place in the history of oceanography.
Oceanography 18(2): 16-23.

Pilson, Michael E. Q. 2006.
We are evaporating our coal mines into the air.
Ambio 35: 130-133.

Lohman, R., E. Jurado, M.E.Q. Pilson and J. Dachs. 2006.
Oceanic deep water formation as a sink of persistant organic pollutants.
Geophysical Research Letters 33: LXXXXX, doi:10.1029/2006GL025953.

Soffientino, Bruno and Michael E. Q. Pilson. 2008.
Osservazioni intorno al Bosforo Tracio overo Canale di Constantinopoli Presented in a letter to Her Sacred Royal Majesty Queen Christina of Sweden, by Luigi Ferdinando Marsilii 1681: First English translation, with notes.
Earth Sciences History 28: 57-83.

Pilson, Michael E. Q. 2013.
An Introduction to the Chemistry of the Sea. 2nd Edition.
Cambridge University Press. 524 pp.

Pilson, Michael E. Q. 2014.
Changing pH in the surface ocean.
Oceanography 27(1): 120-125.