Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/September 1892/The Marine Biological Laboratory

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 41‎ | September 1892


THE little village of Woods Holl, situated on the southern shore of Massachusetts, just where that long, sandy stretch, known as Cape Cod, begins to jut from the mainland, is one of the most important spots for biological science in the whole of America. And yet how little the summer migrant knows of the place as he passes through it on his way from the mainland to the summer residences of Cottage City and Nantucket! Woods Holl has for the lover of the sea a charming situation. On the south and east is that important water-way, Vineyard Sound, through which is constantly passing a procession of vessels of all styles and sizes, from the tiny cat-boat to the large passenger steamers of the Norfolk and Savannah lines. To the west is the broad and shallow expanse of Buzzard's Bay, with the New Bedford shore now plainly visible, now appearing in that fantastic shape called by the fisherman "looming"—a kind of mirage when the coast appears doubled as in a mirror, and raised some distance above the horizon. To the southwest stretches out the long chain of the Elizabeth Islands, which possess no little interest. They together form the town of Gosnold, named for that old explorer who in 1602 built his fort upon the westernmost island, Cuttyhunk, traces of which are said to remain to the present day. These Elizabeth Isles have retained the musical names which the Indians gave them, and the students who yearly visit Woods Holl have their struggles with the rhyme—

"Naushon, Nashuena,
Nonamesset, Uncatena,
Weepocket, Pasquenese,
Cuttyhunk and Penikese"—

which embodies the names of the eight.

The channels between the islands are known as "gutters," if shallow; "holes," if broad and deep. Thus, in one place is Quick's Hole, in another Robinson's Hole, while between Nonamesset and the mainland is the dangerous passage of Wood's Hole, whose rocks have proved the wreck of many a vessel and which gives the name to the adjacent village, the spelling of which has for some unexplained reason been changed by the Post-Office Department to Holl.[1]

The village itself is absolutely without business, except the daily shipment of fresh fish to the Boston and New York markets. In years long gone by, like the neighboring seaports, it was interested in the whale fisheries, and a recollection of those oily days still remains in the old stone candle factory where the spermaceti was made into wax candles. Later the Pacific Guano Company established here its extensive works, to which the phosphate rock of the Carolina rivers was brought, pulverized, treated with sulphuric acid, and converted into fertilizers for the farmer. But a few years ago the company failed, and the property has all been sold.

The United States has considerable interests here. There is the lighthouse wharf, where the supplies for the whole district are kept. To this wharf every buoy and channel-mark is brought each year to receive its coat of preservative copper paint; and here is almost always to be seen a reserve light-ship to replace any that may be injured upon the many adjacent shoals. The revenue marine has also its wharf here, where its steamers obtain their supplies of coal and the like. Here, too, is the place where one leaves the dusty cars of the Old Colony Railway for the cool and comfortable steamers for Cottage City and Nantucket. Not these, however, but rather the scientific aspects of the place, interest us at present.

There is no place like the sea-shore for the student of natural history. On the one hand, we can turn to the fields and streams, and find there essentially the same animals and plants which occur a hundred miles inland; on the other, we have the wondrous wealth of life of the ocean, so rich as to almost surpass belief. This richness is of two kinds: First, there is the wealth of numbers, a wealth which is far beyond that of any fresh-water expanse; and, second, the astonishing variety of forms. Whole groups of animals are abundant in the ocean which are absolutely without representatives in our rivers and lakes. Sea anemones and corals, star-fishes and sea-urchins are wholly unknown in fresh water, while thousands of other marine forms have but a few insignificant representatives in ponds and streams.

Nor is this richness either of forms or of individuals the only advantage the sea offers the student. The marine animals often have a greatly different history from their fresh-water relatives. One of the most important studies of the modern naturalist is that which traces every phase of growth of an animal from the time the egg is laid until the adult condition is reached. It is hardly necessary to say that the theory of evolution is no longer a question for discussion with him. He accepts the principle and makes it the key-note of all his investigations. He is now trying to ascertain the various lines of descent, rather than to test the truth of the theory. One of the laws of evolution is that animals, in their growth from the egg to the adult, pass through conditions which represent, more or less clearly, the different stages through which the line of descent has come. Thus, the existence of rudimentary gills, with the cartilages and blood-vessels proper to gills, in the human embryo, is taken as an indication that at one time the ancestor had gills which were functional in other words, that man has descended from a fish-like form. There are, however, great differences in the completeness with which this record of ancestral history has been preserved. Speaking generally, more features have been dropped by the fresh-water and terrestrial forms than by those of the sea. In the latter there frequently hatches from the egg a larva which bears not the slightest resemblance to the adult: the young sea-urchin shows not a feature of the spiny creature we find in the holes in the rocks; and these changes—metamorphoses they are called—are fraught with interest and instruction to the student who goes deeper than ascertaining the mere name of the form he collects. So we can see that, if the ocean offer such advantages, a laboratory for the study of Nature should be on the shore.

Not all places on the coast are equally suitable for study. At one there is nothing but sand; another has rocks and no sand or mud; a third has the water vitiated by the mouth of some river constantly pouring in fresh water, which makes the neighboring ocean brackish; a fourth is contaminated by the sewage of a large city. All these conditions conspire to make the region poor in life. The proper place for our studies must have rocky points; stretches of mud and sand exposed at low tide; currents to bring constantly the pure water of the sea; and such localities are not abundant. It was over twenty years ago that the late Professor Spencer F. Baird, of the Smithsonian Institution, recognized the advantages of Woods Holl, not only for the investigation of the problems of pure science, but for the study of the many questions of more economic importance connected with the supply of food-fishes of the country. So, year after year, he and his assistants came here and worked through the summer months. Some made studies of the fish of the region; others collected the other forms of life, for among these we must seek the food of the fishes; still others traced the life-histories of the injurious as well as of the valuable forms; while still others worked at the problems of artificial hatching and the like. As the work went on it outgrew the limited quarters afforded by the barn-like building on the lighthouse wharf, and so Congress granted the money for the present buildings, the finest for their purposes of any in the world.

These buildings were completed shortly before the death of Professor Baird. On the one side is the Dormitory and Mess Hall,
PSM V41 D625 Us fish commission buildings at woods hole mass.jpg
Fig. 1.—Buildings of the United States Fish Commission, at Woods Holl, Mass. Left, the laboratory; center, the Engine House; right, the Dormitory. In the background at the right is the building of the marine Biological Laboratory.

for accommodations are scarce in Woods Holl, and students can not pay summer-hotel prices. On the other is the admirably equipped Laboratory. On the ground-floor is the fish-hatching room, where each year millions of cod, lobsters, and other valuable animals are carried through the critical period of their existence before being turned into the ocean to shift for themselves. On the same floor are the public aquaria stocked with the most interesting and most attractive animals of the region. The second floor is devoted to laboratories for students and offices for the clerical force. Between the dormitory and the laboratory is the pumping station which forces a constant stream of salt water through the aquaria.

Attracted, not only by the natural advantages of the place, but also by the advantages to be gained by proximity to such an institution as the Fish Commission, the Marine Biological Laboratory was located here. This institution is an evolution, and its embryonic history possesses a certain interest.

For several years, Professor Alpheus Hyatt, of the Boston Society of Natural History, with some of his pupils, spent the summer months in natural history studies at the quaint little fishing village of Annisquam, on the north shore of Cape Ann. The facilities afforded, limited as they were, were highly appreciated by those who came, and more than could be accommodated desired each year to profit by them.

One of the many Boston "isms" is its Woman's Education Association, and a world of good it has done. If any scheme can be shown to promise good results for the education of women, the society will see that the money and all that is necessary are soon forthcoming. So with the humble beginnings at Annisquam; if women could be accommodated, the problem could be easily solved. So the Association provided the money, a building was hired and equipped with the absolutely necessary furniture and apparatus, and on June 15, 1881, the first student began his work in the Annisquam Laboratory. For six years this institution was kept up; a hundred students worked there with scalpel and microscope, and the laboratory fully demonstrated its raison'd'étre.

It is a principle of the Woman's Education Association to carry its projects through the experimental stage, but no further. If, then, they have shown their necessity or utility, the Association takes the necessary steps to put the institution upon an independent footing. So with the Annisquam Laboratory. It supplied a want, and must be made permanent. As a result of several meetings in Boston, the Marine Biological Laboratory was incorporated in the spring of 1888, and to it was transferred all the property, etc., of its Annisquam predecessor.

The new was, however, to be greater than" the old. At
PSM V41 D627 Marine biology laboratory at woods hole mass.jpg
Fig. 2.—Building of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Holl, Mass.

Annisquam instruction had been almost the sole function, and no provision was made for investigation. In the new institution research was to be made prominent. At Annisquam scarce twenty students could be accommodated; its successor must provide for at least fifty. Naturally, the question of situation was a serious one. Not a single place on the whole Atlantic coast, from Eastport to Newport, fulfilled all requirements; but Woods Holl seemed the best of all, and hence the result already indicated.

Money was raised, land near the Fish Commission building was purchased, and a two-story building twenty-nine by sixty-three and a half feet was erected and equipped in time for the summer session of 1888. This was enlarged two years later by an addition measuring twenty by forty feet; and this spring a new addition is being made, equal in size to the original structure. This affords some evidence of the growth of the laboratory, and of the constantly increasing demands upon it for space. This growth is also shown in another way. In 1888, seventeen enjoyed its facilities; in 1889, there was a jump to forty-four; in 1890, forty-seven; while in 1891 there was another jump to seventy-one. In these numbers are included both pupils and instructors, for all are students. Those who do the teaching are always engaged in investigation, and their researches are carried on in the moments snatched from the pupils proper. In 1888 there were but two instructors; for 1892, eight are announced.

The laboratory has been extremely fortunate in its head. Ever since its organization Professor Charles Otis Whitman, of Clark University—recently appointed to the new Chicago University—has served as Director, and not a little of the success of the laboratory is due to his efforts and his plans for its development. The scope of the work as announced for this summer shows how far the laboratory has advanced along the lines laid down for it.

As already mentioned, two very distinct functions are recognized: the laboratory is at once a center for the advancement and for the diffusion of knowledge; it is a school for teaching and an institute for research; and accordingly the students who annually attend are divided by a distinct line into pupils and investigators. In the first category come those whose acquaintance with Nature and with the methods of finding out her secrets, is slight. Before they can engage in original research they must have a solid foundation of fact, and facility in the use of the naturalist's instruments. So they dissect and study under the microscope a selected series of animals and plants which may exhibit broadly the different types of structure in the living world. In this class, to which the ground-floor of the laboratory is given up, the pupil is constantly under the eye of the instructor, who endeavors to teach him how to use the microscope and its accessories, how to dissect, and, most important of all, how to interpret what he sees. From the animals studied, the young naturalist obtains a broad knowledge of the general structure which occurs in the greater groups of the animal and vegetable worlds, which can be used as a basis for comparison in future work. In giving the necessary instruction, those in charge are continually trying to impress upon the student the necessity of accuracy and the love of truth, and to give him a clear idea of the great principle of homology, which is the very center and soul of modern morphological work.

A word or two may be necessary to explain exactly what this means. Two organs are said to be homologous when they have the same general structure, no matter how diverse may be the uses to which they are put. Thus, for example, if we dissect the arm of a man and the wing of a chicken, we shall find in each similar bones, muscles, blood-vessels, and nerves; in short, a broadly identical structure—they are homologous organs, and yet how different are their functions! On the other hand, when we study the wing of a butterfly or of a bee, we find in it no bones, no muscles, no nerves; and yet it, like the wing of a bird, is an organ of flight. The resemblances are those of analogy; homology is lacking. In these examples the distinctions are evident, but this is not always the case, yet the principle is equally important in all.

These elementary students occupy the ground-floor of the laboratory. Each has his regular seat at the laboratory tables, a locker for his instruments, and his set of reagents and supplies. In the center of the room are the aquaria, where animals for dissection and study are kept. Here he may work "from early dawn to dewy eve," and later if he (or she) desire.

The second floor is dedicated to investigation, and the students here may be divided into two groups. In the first are those who have pursued a course of study essentially equivalent to that of the pupils on the lower floor, and who wish to begin original investigation. It is not an easy problem for the beginner to find out what questions are important to be solved, and even less easy is it for him to attempt their solution. He needs assistance at first at almost every step. For such persons twenty places are provided. The instructors in charge select some problem which needs solution, and which, at the same time, is not too difficult for the beginner, and which, further, will give experience in technique and method of study. They map out the investigation, and watch the embryo investigator in his struggles. Every step in its solution is accompanied with criticism or suggestion, and, when difficulties arise, either of technique or interpretation, the instructor is at hand to smooth away the trouble.

For those who have passed this preliminary training, and who are ready to carry on investigation, twenty-four private rooms on the second floor are set aside. Here, in privacy and in quiet, undisturbed by others, each can solve his problems. In each room is an aquarium to keep the animals or plants, while the table and shelves are supplied with the necessary books, reagents, and glassware. All who have carried on investigations after the modern methods of zoölogy and botany realize that rapidity is incompatible with good work. A thorough piece of investigation can not be completed in a few weeks; and yet over thirty papers have been published, or are now in press, as the results of the investigations

PSM V41 D630 Students laboratory at woods hole mass.jpg
Fig. 3.—A Bit of the Students' Laboratory, Woods Holl, Mass.

carried on in those private rooms. No laboratory connected with any college or university in the country can show equal productiveness.

In both upper and lower laboratories, among both beginners and investigators, some are working at zoölogical, others at botanical subjects; while this year, for the first time, physiology is to be included in the work done. Material for study is abundant. Besides row-boats, which are available for shore collecting, the laboratory has a sail-boat and also a Burgess-built steam-launch, the Sagitta, which has proved itself the fastest boat in the region. This is daily in use. Now it goes out on a dredging trip in the sound; yesterday it made a trip to Cuttyhunk or Gay Head for lobsters; this morning it made the round of the fish-pounds along the coast for sharks and strange fish; to-morrow it will take a party to Naushon for worms and sea-cucumbers. So it goes, dayafter day, constantly bringing material for the workers in the laboratory. At night another kind of collecting is tried. Many of the smaller animals and the larvae of the larger kinds come to the surface of the sea when the sky is dark and the water calm. Then the naturalist, with a net of gauze, skims the surface of the sea, and catches the life found there. The results of such surfaceskimming are wonderful, and no one who has never seen the operation would begin to imagine the richness of the catch. And then, how quickly it dies! At night there are millions of animals in the dishes into which the tow is poured; in the morning all are dead. So the skimmings must be studied soon after they are taken, if one wishes to utilize them.

The instruction given at the laboratory is largely personal. Each student is carefully watched by the instructors, and naturally the beginners receive more attention than those in the upper laboratory. They also have their daily lectures upon the general principles of zoology and botany. There are frequently other laboratory lectures upon subjects of more general scientific interest. These are given in the evening by the laboratory staff or by visiting naturalists, and no lecture course in the country can boast of such subjects treated by such masters. Naturally, they are appreciated by all, and the little lecture-room is always crowded when they occur. The lectures for 1890 have been issued in book-form, and the volume has been highly praised by the scientific press of the world.

To the student of to-day books are almost as important as specimens. He needs them to show him not only what has already been found out, so that he need not waste his time in duplicating the labors of some foreign naturalist, but also to show him the structure or development in allied forms, so that with the larger array of facts he can have a basis for interpretation of the meaning of his own discoveries. So the laboratory has gathered together a small library. Most of the publishing naturalists of America have given extra copies of their papers, and a generous friend has supplied the means for the purchase of complete sets of several of the most important European periodicals.

Although started in Boston, the Marine Biological Laboratory is a national rather than a local institution. A student from California is as warmly welcomed as one from the immediate neighborhood. In its four years students have come from twentytwo States, from Canada and Japan. Philadelphia has sent more students than Boston; while Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, California, and Kansas have been represented. The fees charged are, for the lower laboratory, thirty dollars; for the upper, fifty dollars, for the season. These fees fall far short of paying the actual running expenses, and yet every outgo is reduced as far as is compatible with first-class results. So every year the trustees have the problem of meeting the deficiency. So far it has been successfully solved, but it means a continuous struggle. Various plans have been suggested; the most promising is the following: That different colleges and universities endow the private rooms with a hundred dollars a year, and by virtue of this payment have the right to nominate the annual occupant.

Such in outline is the Marine Biological Laboratory as it exists to-day; but it is far from being the institution that its friends

PSM V41 D632 Private room at the marine biology laboratory.jpg
Fig. 4.—A Private Room, Marine Biological Laboratory.

wish it to be. It has developed about as far as possible in the line of a school of instruction, but as a center of investigation there is a chance for enormous growth, and for development in that direction the plans are already well thought out, but as yet the necessary money is lacking.

Only a few years ago, when the student wished to investigate marine life, he must take his laboratory with him and depend for quarters upon a room in a fish-house or the like near the shore. That was the way in which Johannes Müller worked in Europe, and the way in which Agassiz studied on our own coast. Some fifteen or twenty years ago the change began, and sea-side laboratories were erected. The best known of these to-day is the celebrated Zoölogical Station at Naples, established by Dr. Dohrn, to which students flock from every quarter of the world. In its appointments it is almost perfect, while in its results it takes the first rank of all the institutions of investigation in existence. Since its establishment other laboratories modeled after it have been founded in all quarters of the globe—Australia, Japan, and Java not being behind the rest. In America the station established by Mr. Alexander Agassiz at Newport is exclusively for investigation, but it is only open to invited guests of its founder. It was a part of the plan of the late Professor Baird to make the Woods Holl station of the United States Fish Commission a center of pure science as well as a laboratory for the solution of the more economic problems connected with the food-fishes, and it has been such. The scientific results published by the students who have availed themselves of the facilities afforded have been very considerable. Still, it is evident that in a Government institution research must ever be subordinate to the more practical questions. The people can pay for that which will put dollars in their pockets, but study for study's sake is something that the average politician can not appreciate. At present, at least, pure research must be supported by private means rather than by Government grant.

The Marine Biological Laboratory has the foundation upon which the ideal laboratory can be built. Its board of trustees includes some of the most prominent zoologists in America, who can be expected to guide it in the most profitable directions. It has already purchased land for future growth. The desire now is that upon this land shall be erected a building which can be kept open all the year, instead of some three or four months in summer. Here there shall be a force of paid investigators through the year, working at the many problems connected with the living world. On the other hand, it will at the same time prove an annex to every progressive college and university in the land, for to it in summer both professors and students can freely come for study and to collect the materials for the winter classes. It will need a large library for reference, and funds for the publication of the results worked out within its walls.

Such an institution can not live from hand to mouth, but it must have an endowment sufficient to pay all running expenses, salaries, and the like. It offers to the future benefactor much in return. To found a college or university to-day requires an enormous fortune; a fraction of that sum would establish a biological station the best in the world. Nowhere in educational lines can such great results be expected as here. We have enough colleges and universities; institutions primarily for research are as yet lacking; yet what honor they would reflect upon the man far-sighted and public-spirited enough to give them the means of existence!


  1. [The First Report of the United States Board on Geographic Names has the following explanation of this change: "The name which was originally Wood's Hole was changed several years ago by the summer residents of the place to Woods Holl."—Editor.]