Angeles Alvariño Biography

Spanish American fishery research biologist and marine scientist Dr. Angeles Alvariño (1916–2005) became one of the few global authorities on certain types of marine plankton. She discovered 22 new species of ocean animals and made great contributions to the scientific understanding of small marine life forms during the course of her career. Alvariño published over a hundred scientific books, chapters, and articles, and dedicated her later years to studying the historical aspects of early marine science and exploration.

Showed Early Interest in Science

Born to Antonio Alvariño Grimaldos, a doctor, and Maria del Carmen Gonzales Diaz-Saavedra de Alvariño on October 3, 1916, in El Ferrol, Spain, Angeles Alvariño showed an interest in the natural sciences at a young age. Encouraged by her parents, she read her father's books on zoology and hoped to one day become a doctor herself. Her father discouraged this notion, hoping to spare his daughter the unpleasant experiences of working with patients afflicted with incurable conditions. During her youth, Alvariño also studied the piano, but remained true to her hopes of becoming a physician.

Alvariño studied diverse topics including natural sciences, physics, chemistry, mathematics, languages, literature, history, geography, philosophy, psychology, and art history during her time at the Lycee Concepcion Arenel in El Ferrol. She then attended the University of Santiago de Composetla in northwestern Spain, from which she graduated summa cum laude in 1933. As part of her degree, she wrote her dissertations on scientific topics—insects—as well as humanities topics—the women of Spanish literary classic Don Quixote . Alvariño later explained her interest in this seemingly odd pairing of subjects by noting that one should "select the profession you love, work hard with enthusiasm, [and] observe and love Mother Nature … Creativity and imagination are the basic ingredients for the scientist, as in the arts, because science is an art."

Studied in Madrid

Because her father still discouraged her ambition of becoming a doctor, Alvariño continued her education in the natural sciences at the University of Madrid, though this course of study was interrupted in 1936 by the Spanish Civil War. Alvariño resumed courses at the university upon its reopening in 1939. Decades later, Alvariño's daughter commented in an interview that "It was a time of lying low and hiding…. People were being persecuted and killed, and you couldn't go outside because you didn't know whether you would make it back home alive." Alvariño completed her master's degree in natural sciences in 1941. While working on her master's degree (and during the years of enforced hiatus), Alvariño studied French and English, pursued intellectual interests with fellow students, and, in 1940, married Sir Eugenio Leira Manso, a naval captain and Knight of the Royal and Military Order of Saint Hermenegild. After her marriage, Alvariño was sometimes known by her married name, Angeles Alvariño De Leira.

Alvariño and her husband returned to El Ferrol after Alvariño completed her studies at the University of Madrid. In El Ferrol, Alvariño taught biology, zoology, botany, and geology for most of the 1940s. In 1948 Alvariño and her family—which now included a young daughter, Angeles Leira Alvariño—moved back to Madrid so Alvariño could take a position as a fishery research biologist with the Department of Sea Fisheries. Due to a Spanish law dating from the 1700s, women were prohibited aboard Spanish naval vessels; thus, Alvariño could not pursue further research studies at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography in Madrid. However, because of her strong educational credentials Alvariño was admitted to biological, chemical, and physical oceanography courses at the institute as well as being allowed to conduct some research there.

During this time, Alvariño also returned to the University of Madrid to pursue doctoral studies in chemistry. After writing three dissertations—one on personality in experimental psychology, one on phosphates in the ocean for chemistry, and one on the distribution, use, and business of seaweeds for plant ecology—she received her certificate in 1951. Alvariño had additionally been on staff at the Superior Council of Scientific Research during her doctoral studies, ultimately working there as a histologist (one who studies biological tissues) from 1948–52. In 1952 Alvariño won a position as marine biologist and oceanographer at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography.

Introduced to Zooplankton

In 1953 Alvariño received a British Council Fellowship and traveled to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Plymouth, England, to study zooplankton. At Plymouth Alvariño worked with a respected English marine biologist and expert on zooplankton, beginning her years of study of these creatures. (Zooplankton comprise the small floating animals in the ocean that serve as food for other animals and include jellyfish, coral, and sea anemones.) Until the 1950s, few scientists had investigated these creatures. Alvariño focused primarily on the three general groups of zooplankton: Chaetognatha, Siphonophora, and the medusae. Chaetognaths, also known as arrow worms, are tiny carnivores that feed on other zooplankton. They have individual responses to the sea water in which they live that make them valuable for identifying water type. Siphonophores are invertebrate animals which cluster together to live as a species-specific colony; the best-known example of this type of creature is the Portuguese Man'o'War. Medusae are a form of jellyfish. In addition, Alvariño studied fish larvae, or the immature stages of some fish.

While at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Alvariño studied zooplankton found in the English Channel and in the Bay of Biscay, along the coast of France and Spain. In doing so, she discovered some forms of life which were typically found in other areas, leading scientists to conclude that Atlantic waters had moved northward in an unusual way.

In 1954 Alvariño returned to Spain to continue her studies of plankton. There she designed and made special nets to catch plankton. She then recruited local fishermen as well as naval research vessels to use the nets to collect samples for her. Alvariño used these diverse sample to study forms of life found in the Atlantic near Spain, as well as in the Mediterranean Sea and near Newfoundland.

Moved to the United States

Alvariño won a Fulbright Fellowship in 1956, enabling her to travel to the United States to further her research. She worked with Dr. Mary Sears, a fellow zooplankton researcher and the president of the U.S. Oceanographic Congress, at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Because of the high quality of Alvariño's work, Sears recommended Alvariño to Dr. Roger Revelle, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California at La Jolla. Revelle offered a biologist position to Alvariño, and she continued her research at La Jolla from 1958–69. She primarily studied the small zooplankton found off the coast of California as well as in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans during that time. This research formed the basis of her doctor of science degree, earned summa cum laude and was awarded by the University of Madrid in 1967. In all, Alvariño's research had uncovered 12 new Chaetognatha species, nine new Siphonophora species, and one new medusa species. During this time, Alvariño also produced a model showing the distribution of different species of Chaetognatha and Siphonophora around the world's oceans.

In 1966 Alvariño became a United States citizen. While at Scripps, Alvariño also received grants for study from the U.S. Office of the Navy and from California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations. For the majority of the 1960s, Alvariño also received grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

In 1970 Alvariño joined the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) as a fishery research biologist. Also located in La Jolla, the SWSFC is a division of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While at the SWFSC, Alvariño continued her research into Chaetognatha, Siphonophora, and medusae, often looking specifically at the relationships between the predatory behaviors of those organisms and the survival of fish larvae. She examined further the distribution of Chaetognatha and Siphonophora species in the Pacific and Antarctic Oceans. Alvariño also considered the indicators and effects of movement, both natural and artificial, among plankton species. More specifically, Alvariño considered the impact of plankton species that were not native to an area, but had been artificially placed there through pollution or ship movement.

Marine Biology Career

In the later 1970s, Alvariño worked to coordinate oceanic research among Latin American nations. She studied in the Antarctic on research grants between 1979 and 1982. Alvariño also received grants from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and from the United National Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Alvariño also put her time into educating future marine biologists. She served as a faculty member at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1976; at San Diego State University from 1979–82; and later, at the University of San Diego from 1982–85. She also held visiting professorships at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil in 1982, and at the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico from 1982–86. During these years Alvariño directed the research of several doctoral candidates and served on thesis committees both in the United States and internationally.

Alvariño officially retired in 1987. However, she continued to conduct research on seagoing vessels hosted by various countries. She was a fellow of the American Institute of Fishery Research Biologists and of the San Diego Society of Natural History, as well as being a member of the Biological Society of Washington and the Hispano-American Association of Researchers on Marine Sciences. In 1993 she received the Great Silver Medal of Galicia from King Carlos I and Queen Sophia of Spain in recognition of her scientific contributions.

Toward the end of her life, Alvariño turned her attention to the history of marine science. She conducted extensive research into the early Spanish explorers and navigators who first mapped the oceans and their currents. Alvariño looked closely at the First Scientific Oceanic Expedition that traveled throughout the western Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean from 1789–94. In 2000 Alvariño published a full account of this expedition.

Death and Legacy

Alvariño continued to work on a proposed second edition of her historical work, which would have included additional illustrations and updated research, up until her death on May 29, 2005, as the result of lyomiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affected soft muscle tissues. Her legacy includes over a hundred scientific publications, including books and journal articles; the 22 news species of sea life she discovered during her career; and her enduring contributions to the research of small life forms in the oceans of the world.


San Diego Union-Tribune , June 10, 2005.


"Angeles Alvariño," Contemporay Hispanic Biography , Vol. 4, 1998, reproduced in Biography Resource Center , (January 6, 2007).

"Angeles Alvariño." Notable Hispanic American Women , Book 2, Gale Research, 1998, reproduced in Biography Resource Center , (January 6, 2007).

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