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‘Dolphin Doctor’ Sam Ridgway, Point Loma marine research pioneer, is remembered for ‘boundless curiosity’

Dr. Sam Ridgway (right) listens to the chest of a dolphin in a medical exam in the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in the 1960s.
Dr. Sam Ridgway (right) listens to the chest of a dolphin trained to cooperate in its own medical exam in the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in the 1960s.
(U.S. Navy)

Over a more than 60-year career, Dr. Sam Ridgway created a legacy as a pioneer in marine mammal medicine and science and a foundation for their conservation, particularly with his discoveries about bottlenose dolphins.

Known affectionately by his colleagues as the “Dolphin Doctor” and the father of marine mammal medicine, Ridgway — who died in his Point Loma home July 10 at age 86 — was honored at a memorial service this month at First United Methodist Church in Mission Valley. The service also remembered Ridgway’s wife of almost 60 years, Jeanette, who died in 2020.

“Sam was a kind and gentle man with a genuine curiosity about everything and everyone around him. This boundless curiosity made him an exceptional scientist and also a wonderful friend,” said Dr. Cynthia Smith, president and chief executive of the National Marine Mammal Foundation.

Throughout his career, Ridgway worked to understand marine mammals’ behavior, physiology and acoustics.

He developed dolphin anesthesia and other marine mammal medicines, as well as techniques to study the animals’ hearing where no data previously existed. He pioneered methods for studying them while they swam freely in the open ocean.

Ridgway’s studies of the complexity of the dolphin brain really made the world recognize them as intelligent animals, said Dr. Frances Gulland, who in May was appointed chair of the Marine Mammal Commission by President Joe Biden.

Dr. Sam Ridgway and his wife, Jeanette, are pictured at their wedding in 1960.
(National Marine Mammal Foundation)

Ridgway’s interest in veterinary medicine blossomed at an early age as he grew up surrounded by animals on his family’s farm in Bigfoot, Texas.

After graduating from Texas A&M University with undergraduate and veterinary degrees, Ridgway joined the Air Force and became a veterinary officer for military service animals. He later earned a doctorate in neuroscience from Cambridge University.

After moving to California, he became the attending veterinarian for the Navy’s marine mammals. In the early 1960s, he helped found the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program — a classified program to study the complexity and intelligence of dolphins, their sonar skills and their ability to descend to dizzying depths.

“We started back in the early ‘60s and found we could take dolphins into the open ocean and they would stick with us and very happily work with us,” Ridgway told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2001. “We established the concept of human/dolphin teams.”

By the time the Navy’s program was declassified in 1992, it was a multimillion-dollar project not only studying dolphins, sea lions and whales but also training them to aid Navy divers by detecting mines, experimental weaponry and enemy swimmers, as well as recovering hardware and weaponry fired or dropped into the ocean.

During that time, Ridgway had formed a bond with an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy, the Navy’s first domesticated dolphin, who would later become the subject of his book “The Dolphin Doctor.”

Over the years, Ridgway’s studies were published in more than 350 peer-reviewed papers in various scientific journals and books. His book “Mammals of the Sea,” published 50 years ago, remains one of the most comprehensive and widely taught textbooks on marine mammal physiology.

Dr. Sam Ridgway was a founder of the National Marine Mammal Foundation.
(National Marine Mammal Foundation)

As a leader in his field, Ridgway founded various organizations and served on the boards of many scientific committees.

In 2007, he helped establish the National Marine Mammal Foundation, a San Diego-based nonprofit recognized as a leader in mammal science, medicine and conservation.

Over the years, Ridgway mentored hundreds of veterinarians, conservationists and scientists — including, most recently, Brittany Jones.

“When he looked at you, he thought, ‘How can you change the world?’” said Jones, now a scientist at the nonprofit her mentor founded. "[It’s] the kind of potential most of us don’t see within ourselves, but being around Sam, he sort of made you believe that about yourself.”

“He was always pushing the envelope,” Jones said. “He was always coming up with these unique ideas to solve big problems, and he never thought a problem was too big.”

Even after his death, students and colleagues can have a virtual one-on-one chat with him using an interactive online tool created in 2020 in which he answers hundreds of questions about his marine mammal experience.

Ridgway is survived by his brothers, Don and Sid, and their families.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the National Marine Mammal Foundation’s Ridgway Fund at nmmf.org/donations/ridgway-fund to support marine mammal research and conservation.


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