Dr. Joan Murrell Owens

Dr. Joan Murrell Owens was a pioneering African American marine biologist, geologist, and button coral expert. In her youth, she showed a passion for the sea and its inhabitants. While she wanted to attend college for Marine Biology, Fisk University, an HBCU, did not have any marine biology courses. She ended up studying art and received a BA in Fine Arts (1954) with minors in Psychology and Math from Fisk University. She received her MS (1956) in Guidance Counseling from the University of Michigan with an emphasis in reading therapy. She then taught remedial English at Howard University and then worked in Newton, MA as a curriculum creator for the Institute for Services in Education. Her work would later form the basis for the Upward Bound program..

After 16 years in education, she still aspired to study the sea. She finally took her leap and made a change in her career. She constructed her own marine biology degree by obtaining a BS (1973) in Geology focusing on paleontology and zoology. She was able to get through her program through a museum technician position she held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She also obtained her MS (1976) and PhD (1984) in Geology at George Washington University (GWU), becoming the first African American woman with a Geology PhD at GWU and the second African American woman in the country.

Her PhD thesis work revolved around the study of button corals. She originally wanted to harvest corals from the sea to study them, however, due to having sickle cell anemia she was unable to SCUBA dive. Sickle cell anemia is a disease that changes the blood from normal rounded shape to a more sickled shape, can cause blood to stick, and limits the amount of oxygen a person’s red blood cells can carry. It can also be very painful. She pursued her PhD research in characterizing corals in the collection at the Smithsonian. Her thesis was titled “Microstructural Changes in the Scleractinia Families Microbicide and Fungicide and their Taxonomic and Ecologic Implications.” During her time there she discovered a new genus of button coral along with three new species. She also theorized gaps between ecology and evolution of corals. Dr. Owens then became the only woman faculty in the Geology Department at Howard University. She enjoyed mentoring and opening doors for her students until her retirement. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 77.


  1. https://ocean.si.edu/human-connections/careers/joan-murrell-owens-and-her-button-corals
  2. https://oumnh.ox.ac.uk/learn-joan-murrell-owens
  3. https://awis.org/historical-women/dr-joan-murrell-owens/  
  4. https://www.planetaid.org/blog/dr-joan-murrell-owens-followed-her-own-path-to-marine-biology
  5. https://www.wowstem.org/post/joan-murrell-owens
  6. https://aaregistry.org/story/joan-murrell-owens-marine-biologist-born/
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/sicklecell/facts.html
  8. https://theregoesmyhero.org/african-americans-affected-by-sickle-cell-and-multiple-myeloma/