Leading a life of landfalls and departures, Morison spent three years at Oxford (1922–1925) as the first Harmsworth Professor of American History, and he retraced Columbus's voyages (1937–1940) in preparation for his biography of the Italian explorer, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize.
Morison's love of the sea, so evident in his early work The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783–1860 (1921), and his belief in Francis Parkman's participatory style of history led him to undertake his most difficult project after the United States entered World War II. Too old to receive a commission, Morison lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed him the navy's official historian in 1942. Commissioned a lieutenant commander in the naval reserves and permitted to roam the oceans at will, Morison obtained berths on combat vessels ranging from patrol boats to heavy cruisers, and he witnessed firsthand pivotal battles, such as Guadalcanal and Okinawa. Given complete access to files, Morison also attended planning sessions for crucial operations such as torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, and conducted postoperational interviews with commanders. The resulting History of United States Naval Operations in World War II appeared in 15 volumes between 1947 and 1962.
Promoted to rear admiral in 1951, Morison also received the Medal of Freedom in 1964, the highest civilian decoration that the president of the United States can bestow. Although John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography (1957) won Morison a second Pulitzer, biographer Gregory Pfitzer identifies The Oxford History of the American People as Morison's crowning glory. Morison, who died in Boston on 15 May 1976, is remembered for his diversity, flair, and ability to steer a middle course between the professional demands of scholarship and the appetites of nonprofessional readers.
David R. Snyder
Beck, Emily Morison, ed. Sailor Historian: The Best of Samuel Eliot Morison. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.; Pfitzer, Gregory M. Samuel Eliot Morison's Historical World: In Quest of a New Parkman. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991.; Pfitzer, Gregory M. "Morison, Samuel Eliot." In John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, vol. 15, 867–871. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.