Tom McIlwain

Location of Interview
Collection Name

Turtle Excluder Device Oral Histories


Partnering with the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi and various Sea Grant programs, this project collects and preserves early 1980s Turtle Excluder Device (TED) oral histories from the inventors of early TEDs, the NOAA Fisheries and Sea Grant personnel central to the development of TEDs, and local shrimpers about their experiences using the early TEDs.

Date of Interview

Darlene Perez

Principal Investigator
Biographical Sketch

Biographical Sketch

Tom McIlwain was born November 15, 1940, in Pascagoula, Mississippi. He was appointed as a Page in the US Congress by Representative William Comber and attended the Capital Page School in Washington. After graduating, Tom worked as an Outside Machinist Apprentice and then moved to the nuclear power department. His title was Aide to the Chief Nuclear Engineer.  He served in the US Army and left as a Sergeant. Tom attended Mississippi State before serving in the military, then attended the University of Southern Mississippi, where he obtained a B.S. in Psychology and Biology, an M.S., and a Ph.D., with a minor in Computer Sciences and Statistics. He was hired as a Research Biologist at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and retired as their Assistant Director. Tom developed two different research programs bringing in a couple of million dollars a year in extra bureau funding. One was the USDA National Shrimp Aquaculture program, and the other was SEAMAP. In his earlier years at the Laboratory, he took a sabbatical, worked for Trent Lott in Washington, and became a lobbyist for the Laboratory. He developed the Marine Fisheries Initiative (MARFIN) and worked on the reauthorization of the Magnussen Stevens Fishery Conservation Management Act. His career dealing with Gulf species spanned over 51 years.

Scope & Content Note:

Tom grew up in Pascagoula. His family moved to Pascagoula around 1915, 1916; Wayne County area, Mississippi. Then they moved from Wayne County to Richton, then to the coast. His grandfather was a doctor at a sawmill in Richton, then opened up a practice in Pascagoula. His father owned a general mercantile store and worked at Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation for 40 years. Tom lived by and spent all his time on the water. He’d fish, swim, and duck hunt. In the early 50s, the National Fishery Service, then The Bureau of Commercial Fisheries under the Department of the Interior, built a research lab and sent a contingent of people to occupy it. Tom always showed up there with tiny little creatures he’d trap in the water using an old window screen or with strange-looking fish. Before the age of ten, Tom knew he wanted to be a marine biologist. At age ten, he purchased his first boat for ten dollars, one dollar down and one dollar a week. He converted it to a sailboat with the help of his grandmother, making a sail from muslin. His parents wanted him to become a musician, but on his way to band camp, he’d hang his trumpet up in the hedges and ride his bike to the city docks, where he worked on the ice and shrimp boats. He worked in the hole with a hose blowing ice into the holes. He’d pick up his trumpet on the way home. He became a Page in the US Congress in high school, which gave him invaluable experience that he used as a lobbyist later in his career. At his graduation, the two keynote speakers were then-Senator Lindon Johnson and Senator John F. Kennedy. His diploma was awarded to him by Richard Nixon, who at that time was the Vice President, and his diploma is signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower. In college, Tom was coming traveling home on a bus when he met a couple of dance instructors. His girlfriend found out about it and transferred to another college. They reconciled a few years later and quickly married. After completing his master’s degree he began teaching at Saint Martin High School in West Jackson County, where he could continue doing research. When Tom was preparing to return to school to complete his doctorate, Hurricane Camille struck but was able to complete his degree later. Then Hurricane Katrina came and destroyed many years of his research documents and the Laboratory’s library.

Please Note: The oral histories in this collection are protected by copyright and have been created for educational, research and personal use as described by the Fair Use Doctrine in the U.S. Copyright law. Please reach out to let us know how these interviews are being used in your research, project, exhibit, etc.  The Voices staff can help provide other useful resources related to your inquiry. 

The NOAA mission is to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. The Voices Oral History Archives offers public access to a wide range of accounts, including historical materials that are products of their particular times, and may contain offensive language or negative stereotypes.

Voices Oral History Archives does not verify the accuracy of materials submitted to us. The opinions expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewee only. The interviews here have been made available to the public only after the interviewer has confirmed that they have obtained consent.