In Memory of Dr. Sam Ridgway

Dr. Sam Houston Ridgway, DVM, PhD, DACZM (1936 - 2022)

Dr. Sam Ridgway, distinguished marine mammal veterinarian and scientist, passed away peacefully at home on Point Loma in San Diego, surrounded by beloved family and friends. Sam was a humble man of heroic accomplishment, with a quick wit, kind heart, and gentle soul. He will be greatly missed by all that knew him.
Sam was born in Bigfoot, Texas, son to Morris Shepard and Florence Lipscomb Ridgway. In 1960, he married his sweetheart, Dr. Jeanette Fuller Ridgway, PhD, of Richards, Texas. They enjoyed almost 60 years of marriage before she passed in 2020. Sam is survived by his brother Don Ridgway (wife Jo Layne), brother Sid Ridgway (wife Mary Jay), and their families.
He earned his undergraduate and veterinary degrees from Texas A&M University and was a loyal fan of the Aggies’ football team. Sam was commissioned in the Air Force as a veterinary officer for military service animals. Upon moving to California, he became the attending veterinarian for the US Navy’s marine mammals, which launched his career in marine mammal medicine and science. In 1970, he received a Navy fellowship to study under Sir Richard Harrison at Cambridge University, where he earned a PhD in neuroscience. He applied this knowledge to understanding the behavior and physiology of marine mammals, especially bottlenose dolphins.
Sam was a founder of the US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, which he served for more than 60 years. He was the founding President and CEO of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, a nonprofit he helped establish in 2007. Sam was widely known for establishing novel methods to partner with marine mammals in the open ocean, which allowed humans to observe and interact with animals in their natural environment. This led to great advancements in marine mammal behavior, physiology, and acoustics.

He was one of the largest contributors to marine mammal science, publishing more than 350 peer-reviewed papers, book chapters, and books. Early in his career, he published a book called Dolphin Doctor, a name that became synonymous with Sam himself. A large volume of his work focused on cetacean neuroscience, anatomy, and physiology. His book Mammals of the Sea, published 50 years ago, remains one of the most comprehensive textbooks on marine mammal physiology.

Sam was affectionately known among his colleagues as the ‘father of marine mammal medicine’ due to his pioneering spirit and ground-breaking discoveries that advanced the health and welfare of dolphins, porpoises, whales, sea lions, and seals. Sam embraced conservation biology and medicine, and he was eager to apply his knowledge and expertise to marine mammals in the wild. His scientific discoveries served as a foundation for the protection and conservation of marine mammals globally.
Throughout his career, Sam mentored hundreds of veterinary and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, marine mammal veterinarians, conservationists, and scientists. He cherished his mentor-mentee relationships and dedicated countless hours to his students. He traveled the world to share his discoveries through lectures and meetings, reaching students and colleagues on every continent. He continued to contribute in his final days, enjoying time spent with members of his Early Scientist Program as they discussed results and finalized publications.
Sam was revered as a leader in the marine mammal community. He was founding President of the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine (IAAAM). He served on the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Marine Mammal Commission, on committees of the National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences, and was elected a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America and American College of Zoological Medicine. He was awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Award by Texas A&M University, College of Veterinary Medicine; the Lifetime and Clinical Medicine Awards from IAAAM; the Kenneth S. Norris Lifetime Achievement Award of the Society for Marine Mammalogy; and, two Navy awards, the Gilbert H. Curl Award, and the Lauritsen Bennett Award.
Despite his impressive accolades, Sam navigated his life with humility and grace. He touched the minds and hearts of his colleagues with his curiosity and light-hearted nature. When Sam showed his strength, it was always in regard to the animals. He was globally respected and admired for his unwavering commitment to the animals in his care and in the wild. During his lifetime, he inspired students and colleagues all over the world to dedicate their careers to protecting, conserving, and caring for marine mammals.

In 2020, a StoryFile was created of Sam, inspired by long-time friend and colleague Carolyn E. Schlundt Melka. The StoryFile serves as a living memorial that allows present and future generations to interact with Sam about his personal and professional life.

Memorial Service Information

A memorial service for both Sam and his wife Jeanette will be held at the First United Methodist Church of San Diego on Friday, September 9th at 3pm PT.

If you can’t attend in person, but would like to participate remotely, please see the live-streaming information here.

In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes donations to the Jeanette Fuller Ridgway Writing Fund. Sam created this fund to honor Jeanette’s love of literature and to support NMMF researchers, animal care experts and educators in the completion of writings in order to share their work with the scientific community and general public.

The family also welcomes donations to the Ridgway Fund. The NMMF created this fund to honor Sam and to continue his legacy in pioneering marine mammal medicine, science, and conservation.

A memorial service for both Sam and his wife Jeanette will be held at the First United Methodist Church of San Diego on Friday, September 9th at 3pm PT. If you would like to attend the service in person or via livestream, please RSVP here.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the National Marine Mammal Foundation’s Ridgway Fund, to continue Sam’s legacy in pioneering marine mammal medicine, science, and conservation.

The Ridgway Fund

Dr. Sam Ridgway was the founding President of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, with a mission to improve and protect life for marine mammals through science, service, and education. The Ridgway Fund will help carry on his life’s work, with a special focus on innovations in marine mammal science, medicine, and conservation. If you would like to support the Ridgway Fund, please donate here in his honor.

Dr. Sam Ridgway's StoryFile