Women's History Month - Melba Caldwell, M.A.

Women's History Month - Melba Caldwell, M.A.

Published: Friday, March 1, 2024

Whitney Laboratory celebrates Women's History Month - Join us throughout March as we celebrate women who have helped shape the Whitney Laboratory to what it is today!

Melba Caldwell, M.A.

Founding Staff, Research Instructor

Division of Biocommunication and Mammal Research
Communication Sciences Laboratory
C. V. Whitney Marine Research Laboratory


Melba C. Caldwell, a dolphin communication expert with 45 publications, helped persuade C. V. “Sonny” Whitney to build a new research facility that would eventually become the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience.

Dolphins can be downright chatty with their clicks and whistles. In the 1960s, Caldwell and her husband, David, were the first to isolate distinct “signature” whistles from recordings of dolphins kept at Marine Studios, precursor to the Whitney Lab. At that time, lab space was at a premium, and there was already talk of needing new facilities. Then, in 1968, a “mysterious illness” swept through the dolphins at Marine Studios. The die-off required a response team, and Caldwell jumped in feet first.

“We had put together a nice working group,” Caldwell recalled two decades later. But they didn’t have sufficient space. Caldwell gathered her courage and set up a meeting with Whitney and W. C. “Billy” Raulerson (a collector for Marineland) to discuss the need for a new laboratory.

“Mr. Whitney, these animals have been good to you,” she’s reported to have said. “They have made you and the stockholders a lot of money. And we aren’t doing anything for them. Wouldn’t it be good if we could have a laboratory here — do something for the porpoises in return for all they have done for us?”

Raulerson would later say that Caldwell was so convincing, “it looked as though [Whitney] had tears in his eyes.” Caldwell, a founding staff member of the Whitney Lab, got the ball rolling — the rest is history.