The Prime Need of American Biology, A Marine Observatory

“These studies appeal to the mind and to the heart at every stage of our intellectual existence. They keep alive that innate love of nature which is so essential a foundation of happiness and well-being.”

The ocean is now regarded as the original home of life on this planet, and its present inhabitants furnish records of life histories and evolution phases which are absolutely indispensable to a deeper insight into the phenomena and laws of life. This is not merely the opinion of a few investigators, but the concurrent testimony of leading biological authorities the world over. It is a conviction which began to take root a little after the middle of this century, but has only within the last twenty years found expression in the establishment of marine laboratories.

A glance at the history of this movement may give some idea of its importance, and place our long-felt need in a clearer light. Liebig’s Welt im Glase is said to have given rise to the idea of marine aquaria, which were first developed in London. The step from inland marine aquaria to seaside laboratories, simple as it may be in theory, was accomplished only after many years of pioneer work had shown the importance of marine biology, and the necessity of well-equipped laboratories at the seashore for its prosecution. It was the work of such men as Johannes Müller, Carl Vogt, Louis Agassiz, Rudolf Leuckart, Thomas Huxley, Carl Gegenbaur, Anton Dohrn, and Lacaze-Duthiers that prepared the way for the appreciation of marine zoölogy. Carl Vogt, of Geneva, once a colleague of the late Professor Agassiz, was one of the earliest and ablest advocates of seaside laboratories in Europe. As early as 1844 we find him engaged with Mime-Edwards on a plan for the investigation of coral islands, for which purpose a station was to be erected, and a ship with dredging apparatus supplied. A mere question of etiquette, says Vogt, brought the plan to naught. The commander in chief of a man-of-war in the royal navy of France would not submit to the direction of a naturalist. A few years later, Vogt tried in vain to create an interest in a station at Villafranca, and in 1863 he proposed a “zoölogical seminary” at Naples, which only failed of realization through the untimely death of his coadjutors, Matteucci and Filippi. Similar events thwarted his effort to found a station at Triest, in 1871. At last, after so many disappointments, this great apostle of marine laboratories has had the satisfaction of seeing that his labors were not wholly in vain; for stations have been planted both at Villafranca and Triest, and at Naples his plan has been more than realized in the magnificent international station founded by Anton Dohrn. It was early in the seventies that the movement culminated in the establishment of the celebrated station at Roscoff, under the direction of Professor Lacaze-Duthiers, and in the Zoölogical Station at Naples. Many other stations have since been planted in Europe, and they have extended even to Africa, Asia, Australia, and Japan, rapidly verifying the prediction of Dohrn that the world would soon be encircled by biological stations.

Such institutions are no longer regarded as doubtful experiments. The leading governments of Europe, while staggering under the dead weight of standing armies, support them by liberal subventions. The annual deficit of ten thousand dollars in the budget of the Naples station is generously met by the German government, although the station does not stand on German ground. Germans may well be proud of a “Fatherland” that, in matters of science, forgets geographical as well as ethnological boundary lines.

On this side of the Atlantic, the earlier marine laboratories most fruitful in research are the private laboratory of Mr. Agassiz at Newport, the Chesapeake Zoölogical Laboratory of Professor Brooks, and the United States Fish Commission Station at Wood’s Holl. The history of our seaside laboratories began with the Anderson School of Natural History in 1873. That school holds an important place in the history of our summer schools; but its story has been so faithfully and graphically told by Mrs. Agassiz, as to make it unnecessary to dwell upon it here.

The isolated location of the Anderson School, ten or fifteen miles from the mainland, and the death of its master, December 14, 1873, led to its abandonment at the close of the second session, in 1874. Mr. Alexander Agassiz, to whom the directorship fell after the death of his father, endeavored in vain to interest educational institutions in its support, and hence his plan of removing the laboratory to Wood’s Holl was given up. For nearly twenty years the laboratory stood as an empty monument to the enterprising genius of Agassiz, its plain pine walls adorned only with some mottoes which were the treasured words from his inspired lips during that memorable summer. These mottoes were taken to the Marine Biological Laboratory at Wood’s Holl in the summer of 1891, and they, with a few other relics, are all that remain, for shortly afterward an unexplained fire completely destroyed the building.

About ten years after the abandonment of Penikese, the late Professor Spencer F. Baird, backed by all the resources of the United States Fish Commission, succeeded in planting at Wood’s Holl the most extensive fish and fisheries station in the world. The station had a fleet of vessels at its service, and laboratory facilities beyond anything before offered in this country; but for various reasons the station did not develop into a strong centre of biological research. After Professor Baird’s death, his successor in office, Colonel Marshall McDonald, reorganized the station, and endeavored to revive the plan of making it a scientific centre. While the station has fulfilled the functions of a fish commission with marked success, it is manifest that its organization and aims are incompatible with those of a great national centre of research. It is conceded on all sides that a station, in order to meet the needs of our science, must have an organization entirely independent of government control, and be dependent, not on annual appropriations that may be as uncertain and variable as the fortunes of political parties, but on an adequate endowment furnished by private initiative. This point is settled by our own history as well as by the general verdict of scientific men.

The latest effort to establish a biological observatory at Wood’s Holl is now in the fifth year of its development. It started with small means, but with high aims. At the outset the times were not ripe for the immediate realization of high hopes. The entire situation was beset with difficulties, which time and faithful work alone could overcome. Educational institutions, with but few exceptions, took no active interest in the project; rival schemes were set up all around; men of high scientific respectability and influence held aloof; and the cause itself had to be vindicated at every point. In short, the conditions and forces with which its supporters had to deal required a period of re-creative incubation and nursing before they would lend themselves to the hoped-for development. The records of the laboratory show that it has all the vitality of a sound germ, which needs only the sprinkling of an adequate endowment to call forth its latent powers, and make it a national centre of biological research. When a second Anderson arises to bless the undertaking, he will find that the ground has been so well prepared as to preclude the possibility of another failure. The feasibility of the plan has already been demonstrated; the active coöperation of a very large number of the leading biologists of the country has been secured; no less than a dozen colleges and universities responded to the first offer of private rooms on subscription; and, what is all important, the whole organization is on a strictly non-sectional basis. Not only have all these elements of a safe and permanent foundation been secured, but the resources of the fauna and flora have been tested over and over again; so that it can now be said with absolute confidence that Wood’s Holl, all things considered, is precisely the location which combines the largest number of natural advantages, such as accessibility, a healthy climate, quiet surroundings, extensive and easy collecting grounds, water free from contaminating inflows either from rivers or city sewers, wealth and variety of shore life as well as pelagic forms. Close by are small, easily isolated bodies of brackish water, and a considerable number of isolated fresh-water basins and lakes, affording opportunities of the rarest kind for studying the effects of long isolation, and most favorable conditions for the control of experimental work. The United States Fish Commission plant, with extraordinary facilities for collecting, adds greatly to the advantages of the location.

In speaking of the many practical advantages of the location, the attractive features of the environment should not be overlooked. Low, sloping hills, covered with forests of evergreens, or groves of oak, beech, and maple, form the background; in front lie the beautiful islands of Nonamesset and Naushon, the two nearer links in the long chain of the eight Elizabeth Islands, the Indian names of which are familiar to members of the laboratory through the following rhyme: —

Naushon, Nashuena
Nonamesset, Uncatena,
Weepecket, Pasquenese,
Cuttyhunk and Penikese.

On the south and east lies Vineyard Sound, a favorite course for yacht-races, and an important highway for steamers, vessels, and craft of every order and description. Just beyond rises Martha’s Vineyard, which, together with Nantucket, constitutes the “foot” of the Massachusetts “boot.” The “sole” of this “foot’ is imagined to be ripped off and turned back in the form of Cape Cod, which, being out of sight to the observer at Wood’s Holl, does not detract, even by way of metaphorical suggestion, from the beauty of the island. Opposite, on the west, is the broad expanse of Buzzard’s Bay, nearly landlocked from the ocean by the chain of the Elizabeth Islands, and thus forming a separate sea of about thirty miles in length. Such are the surroundings.

The present Marine Biological Laboratory at Wood’s Holl represents only the initial stage of the undertaking. It serves as a temporary basis for the concentration of forces and the perfection of plans. It is provisional, however, only as a germ is provisional, which anticipates, potentially at least, the essential characters and activities of the mature organism.

The laboratory owes its origin to the Women’s Educational Association and to some members of the Society of Natural History of Boston. Its board of trustees, numbering about twenty, represents Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Williams, Cincinnati, the University of Toronto, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the Boston Society of Natural History. Its officers of instruction have been drawn from no less than fourteen leading educational and scientific centres of the United States. Its membership has extended to nearly all the more important universities, colleges, and schools. Beginning in 1888 with a membership of 17, representing thirteen different institutions, it increased the number to 44 in 1889, 47 in 1890, 71 in 1891, and 110 in 1892, from fifty-two of our higher institutions of learning.

The Marine Biological Laboratory attaches itself to no single institution, but holds itself rigidly to the impartial function of serving all on the same terms. It depends not upon one faculty for its staff of instructors, but seeks the best men it can find among the higher institutions of the land. The board of trustees is a growing body, every year adding to its number, until it now comprises a very large proportion of the leading biologists of America. The whole policy is national in spirit and scope. The laboratory exists in the interest of biology at large, and not to nurse the prestige of any university or the pride of individual pretension.

It upholds an idea which appeals more and more every day to our scattered workers. It is the idea of collective as opposed to isolated endeavor, the idea of coöperative concentration of varied forces in place of dissipative multiplication of like forces. Recognizing specialization in scientific work as one of the two great principles underlying all progress, it finds the companion principle in affiliation. These two principles, — the one tending to intensify and exalt individual effort, the other to supplement and magnify it through organic unity of action, — these two principles, acting together, furnish, as we now both see and feel, the conditions of progress. The organic world has obeyed these principles unconsciously; the social world is forced along the same general line of progress, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, but forced all the same; the scientific world has discovered that specialization is a necessity, and that this necessity has a twin sister, for which we have no better name than “affiliation.” We have ceased to distrust the leadership of specialization, and as we follow, limiting our effort to what we can do best, we find the parts we have resigned provided for and kept in true relation by affiliated labor. Affiliation, and affiliation of the broadest scientific catholicity, is the keynote of the organization, which serves as a preliminary to the desired foundation at Wood’s Holl.

On a sound organization hangs everything. This is the punctum saliens, the vital point in such an undertaking. It is the only agency to which a large endowment can be safely entrusted. It must be sound in principle, true to ideals, and practical in aims. The prime requisites are three. First, it must be representative: it must represent the leaders of our sciences; it must express the affiliation it advocates; it must not be open to the suspicion of favoring local or personal interests; and it must be so ordered as to be proof against the intrusion of such influences. Secondly, it must be devoted to biology as a whole: it must stand, not for any one-sided development, but for the broad interests of all the biological sciences in marine life; representing all schools of biology, it must be the safest guardian of the common interests of all. Thirdly, it must be independent: it should be free from the control of either the state or the general government, — as far removed from the influences of political intrigue as possible; it should tolerate only such connections or relations with colleges and universities as would further its general usefulness, insure its scientific efficiency, and secure impartiality of administration.

Representative character, devotion to biology at large, independent government, — such are the essential elements of a strong and progressive organization.

Such an organization would comprise, in addition to a representative board of trustees, a strong body of salaried investigators, and a staff of officers for the direction of the scientific work and for the administration of current affairs. The investigators should be selected with a view to representing as many of the leading branches of biological work as possible, so as to realize to the fullest extent the great advantages of close association among specialists. For the work of such a staff and that of transient investigators, an extensive equipment would be required, — furniture, aquaria, instruments, glassware, and all the paraphernalia of an investigator’s table, besides boats, dredges, nets, and whatever other apparatus is called for in collecting.

To all this must be added a body of expert research assistants. This is a provision of the very highest importance, as a moment’s reflection will make clear. The proper work of the investigator is mental. While it is true economy for him to devote a certain amount of time to physical exercise in the open air, he cannot afford to waste time in the purely mechanical drudgery of his occupation. In order to know the haunts and the habits of the organisms he studies, he must search for them himself, and his work is incomplete until he can bring habits and activities into relation with structure and form. But in this time-consuming work of collecting, the greater part may and should be done by trained collectors who are not fitted to do the brain-work of research. For the same reasons, the investigator should not have to lose time and energy in preparing reagents, dish-washing, knife-sharpening, sectioning with the microtome, elaborating tedious drawings with the pencil or brush, constructing models, and many other purely manual performances, which can be done better and more quickly by trained assistants. While he must be master of most of these technical aids, he should have every time-saving service at hand.

In these days, when so much may depend upon the method employed, the investigator must be an experimenter, and that he can be without descending from the plane of scientific discovery. When, however, the results have been reached and formulated, the preparations and applications of the means devised can, for the most part, be carried out by assistants. It should be a reproach to any institution to permit an investigator worthy of the name to squander precious moments and money pottering with mechanical details that signify nothing. The time will come when waste of brain-energy will be reckoned a public calamity. Francis Galton speaks to the point when he says, “Aptitudes and tastes for occupations which enrich the thoughts and productive powers of man are as much articles of national wealth as coal and iron, and their waste is as reprehensible.”

Biological investigation, be it remembered, has already suffered beyond calculation from the lack of proper service. So generally has this matter been neglected that we often have the mortification of seeing science confounded with technique. Neither biology nor any other science can dispense with its retinue of hod-carriers, but bricks and mortar do not create an edifice. The hod-man remains a hod-man until be rises to the mastery of architectural origination. Fine artistic drawings, skillful dissections, exquisite models, beautiful microscopical preparations, and the like are instrumentalities and illustrative decorations of science, in all of which the average unscientific intelligence may excel. The execution of such work, admirable and useful as it is, is not to be confounded with science, even though it be done by a man of science. High-sounding titles, like “Contributions to Science,” often how or contributions of unwrought clay, and these may be archived in scientific periodicals. But the clay-digger, like the hod-carrier, is doing purely mechanical work—he is contributing only material elements—devoid of all tectonic creation. It is not collection and description of material, but interpretation that makes science. “Observation and Reflection” are the expressive words with which Karl Ernst von Baer signalized his idea of true scientific work. Goethe’s contributions to biology bear on the title-page the inscription, “Erfahrung, Betrachtung, Folgerung,” — Experience, Reflection, Inference, — three steps without which science cannot be reached.

It is for the higher productions of our sciences that a marine biological observatory would stand. It should be guided by men imbued with lofty aims, who are in touch with the leading issues of biology, who know both how to respect and how to estimate all grades of work, who are fertile in ideas and yet not lacking in common sense, who understand the difference between the achievements of pure science and the exploits of technique, who are able to stimulate and guide the efforts of others, who appreciate the importance of keeping specialists in working relations that approach organic unity, and who know how to order mechanical agencies so as to make them most effective servants to the higher functions of science.

The buildings required for such an organization would be an observatory and a mansion. The observatory should be a three-story fireproof building, large enough for an extensive aquarium, a library, lecture hall, several general laboratories, about fifty private laboratories, and a number of store and work rooms. Doubtless some questions yet remain to be answered in the minds of those who have not inquired particularly into the needs, aims, and practical importance of biological investigation.

Why should the friends of education and science take a deep interest in the project I have outlined? Is it a scheme that the whole scientific world would approve and urge, or is it only the fad of a few scientific cranks? Is it of sufficient importance to the higher educational institutions of America to receive their general and continued support? Allowing that it would be a great and lasting benefaction to science, would it touch the vital every-day interests of humanity? Is a national affair of this magnitude an object for private enterprise? As it does not appeal to local pride, how can it expect individual beneficence to come to its aid? Some of these questions have been fully answered in the foregoing pages; others, although many times answered by the deeds of enlightened generosity, are yet deserving of brief notice here.

Let me again emphasize the fact that the distinctive feature of the undertaking, its national character, is precisely what gives it the indorsement of scientists both at home and abroad, and makes it a matter of common interest to our colleges and universities; hence it touches larger than sectional interests, and appeals to more worthy motives than those which are moved by local celebrity. To the large-minded benefactor, who measures the dignity and worth of an undertaking, not by what it will return in local fame, but by what it will accomplish for the advancement of science, — to such a benefactor this feature will appeal with no little force.

The cause of higher education and science, in this country, owes nearly all its greater foundations to the broad and generous philanthropy of private initiative. The Smithsonian Institution, which has so long and so successfully served the cause, stands to-day, and will ever stand, as one of the best examples. The Anderson School of Natural History was absolutely free from the reproach of localism; its master and its founder were both spirits finely touched to fine issues. Some of our older and most honored universities arose, not at the instance of sectarian rivalry, metropolitan pride, or any other limitation foreign to the spirit of science, but at the instigation of sentiments and purposes as free and boundless as the air we breathe. One such universal blessing lifts this centennial year above the din and clang of a gigantic World’s Fair, and makes it forever memorable in the annals of American university creations. The real glory and grandeur of that gift, be it noted in passing, lie in the simple fact that it was bestowed on a cause, not on a place. A world’s cause, like a World’s Fair, must have a “local habitation;” such a cause finds its place, not the place the cause.

The scientific importance of the work in question has been indicated; its discoveries are now leading philosophical thought, and giving us an insight into the history of life which other lines of investigation could never afford. Its educational value is that of biological studies in general. These studies appeal to the mind and to the heart at every stage of our intellectual existence. They keep alive that innate love of nature which is so essential a foundation of happiness and well-being. They awaken thought and sharpen sight; they intensify regard for essentialities, train the powers of observation and discrimination, accustom the mind to logical methods, deepen sincerity, and give strength and courage of conviction.

The really precious things of life, as Ruskin has so clearly discerned and taught, are thought and sight, not steam and electricity. “The greatest timing a human soul ever does in this world,” says Ruskin, “is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one.” No stronger testimony to the importance of biology as a means and source of culture could be desired, for it is especially the biological sciences which appeal directly, constantly, and in a multitude of ways to sight, while exercising and developing the insight. Emerson, discoursing on The Method of Nature, gives no less emphatic testimony to the same truth when he says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

The “practical” utilities of biological knowledge are multiplying on every hand, and they are beginning to be felt in so many ways in our homes and our occupations that a detailed consideration of them does not seem necessary here. A few general statements for those who are not familiar with the facts will suffice. Without claiming more than has already been conceded by impartial judges, it may be said that our best protection against the ills and dangers of life, our best security in respect to such necessities as food and clothing, and our highest welfare of both mind and body are more intimately connected with the biological sciences than with any other branches of knowledge. Medicine, surgery, and hygiene have been revolutionized at the hands of biology; agriculture and horticulture go to biology as well as chemistry to learn the agencies and first principles of fertility, and for methods of protection against the ravages of insects and destructive parasites; forestry seeks light and aid from the same source; our great fish and fisheries industry, including oyster culture, lobster breeding, and all the rest, is gravitating more and more into the hands of biological investigators. The germ theory of disease, which is biological from beginning to end, has been turned to practical applications of the most varied nature, and of the most far-reaching importance to every people under the sun. Pointing to tire marvelous discoveries of recent years in the etiology of disease, in an address before the International Medical Association of 1881, John Simon, a very high medical authority, said, “I venture to say that in the records of human industry it would be impossible to point to work of more promise to the world than these various contributions to the knowledge of disease, and of its cure and prevention.” This wonderful germ theory owes its origin to the study of the purely scientific question of spontaneous generation.

The study of the great problems of heredity now occupying so much attention among biologists will surely lead, sooner or later, to practical applications of no less moment to the human race than those based on the germ theory of disease. For such study we need facilities for long-continued observation and experiment. Every branch of biological research should be brought to bear on these and kindred problems, and our best talent should be enlisted and encouraged in the service.