Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/September 1901/The Greatest Biological Station in the World

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By Professor W. A. HERDMAN, F.R.S.,


BIOLOGICAL, Zoological, Marine Stations are all of them merely the seaside workshops of the modern naturalist 'writ large.' But they offer wonderful facilities for the most advanced and best kinds of biological work and it is almost impossible to overestimate the influence they have had in the advancement of our knowledge of living nature. The field-naturalist of old, before the days of college laboratories, studied his animals and plants alive in the open, or collected and arranged them in his cabinets and museums. The work was interesting and necessary, but to some extent superficial. We see its importance enhanced in these later days in the light of Darwinism. It was an enormous gain to science when zoological and botanical laboratories were equipped in the universities, and when every student came to examine everything for himself and to probe as deeply as possible into structure and function. It is no wonder if for a time, in some quarters, in the fascinations of microscopic dissection and section cutting and mounting, there was perhaps a tendency to lose sight of living nature, and to convert refinement of method and beauty of preparation into the end, in place of being only the means of the investigation.

The biological station came to put all that right. It presented a happy union of the observational work of the field-naturalist with the minute investigations of the laboratory student. It brought the laboratory to the seashore, and the sea, in the form of well-equipped healthy tanks, within the walls of the laboratory. It enabled the living organisms to be studied almost in their native haunts by the most refined laboratory methods.

Thirty years ago the biological station was almost unknown; now there are, I suppose, about fifty or possibly more, large and small, scattered along the shores of the civilized world from the arctic circle to the tropics and Australia, from western California to far Japan in the East—and of these the parent institution, and by far the finest and most important, is the world-renowned 'Stazione Zoologica,' under the direction of Dr. Anton Dohrn, at Naples.

It is almost impossible to think of the Naples station apart from Anton Dohrn. He is the founder, benefactor, director, the center of

The Naples Zoological Station.

all its activities, the source of its inspiration. He established the first building in 1872, and, although he has had support from the German and Italian Governments and from scientific institutions all over the world, still I believe it is no secret that his own private fortune used unsparingly has contributed much to the permanence and success of the undertaking. He has fostered and directed it continuously for nearly thirty years: the twenty-fifth anniversary of the foundation was celebrated on the 14th of April, 1897, by a remarkable memorial in which all the leading biologists of the world were united.

The international character of the institution is a most interesting and important feature. Situated in the south of Italy, founded and directed by a German, subsidized (in an excellent manner described below) by most European governments, including even those of Switzerland, Hungary, Holland, Belgium and Spain, the members of the staff and the naturalists at work in the institution may be of any nation and usually are of many; and at any hour of the day at least the four languages, French, German, English and Italian, may be heard among the busy groups in the laboratory and the library.

But the Naples Zoological Station is not wholly for the scientific man—in fact many visitors to Naples do not know that science has anything to do with it. The more public department of the institution, the celebrated 'Acquario,' is one of the sights of Naples and is well known to and highly appreciated by the more intelligent of the tourists you meet at the hotels. The whole institution is usually known to the English-speaking tourist as 'The Aquarium,' and few, even of those who visit and enjoy it, seem to know or wonder anything about the remainder of the great white edifice into the ground floor alone of which they are allowed to penetrate.

The zoological station of Naples in its present condition (it was once smaller, and will probably some day soon be larger) consists of two great, white, flat-topped buildings of imposing appearance, connected by a central yard and large iron galleries, placed on the Chiaja in the Villa Nazionale, the beautiful public garden which occupies that part of the shore of the wonderful Bay of Naples. Surrounded by palms, cactus, aloes, with groups of statuary, fountains and minor temples, looking out upon the incomparable panorama from Vesuvius by Sorrento and Capri to Procida and Ischia, there is probably no finer situation in the world than that occupied by what is unquestionably the most important of zoological institutions.

As to this importance, no university laboratory approaches it. There is no other laboratory where the work-places are occupied by some forty or fifty doctors and professors and investigators of established reputation from all parts of Europe and America, who have come there to do original work, attracted by the fame of the institution and its director; no laboratory where forty such workers can be kept supplied with abundance of fresh material for their researches (of the most diverse description) brought from the sea at least twice a day: no laboratory where there are such excellent facilities for work and such charming opportunities for scientific intercourse.

The staff of the institution now consists of:

1. Professor Dr. Anton Dohrn, the founder and director. 2. Seven Scientific Assistants—viz. . Dr. Eisig, the administrator of the laboratories; Dr. Paul Mayer, the editor of the publications, Dr. W. Giesbrecht, the assistant editor, and the supervisor of the illustrations; Dr. Gast, also concerned in the publications in addition to other work; Dr. Schcebel, the librarian; Dr. Lo Bianco, the administrator of the fisheries and préparateur; Dr. Hollandt, in charge of the microscopic sections department—all of them well-known men, each eminent in his own line of investigation.

The post of assistant in the physiological department formerly held by the late Dr. Schoenlein is now vacant.

3. In addition to these scientific heads of departments there are:—the secretary, Mr. Linden, two painters, and the chief engineer; and, finally, about thirty attendants, collectors and others employed, in the laboratories, in the collecting and preserving departments, in the aquarium and elsewhere.

This may seem at the first thought a very large staff, but the activities of the institution are most varied and far-reaching, and every thing that is undertaken is carried to a high standard of perfection. Whether it he in the exposition of living animals to the public in the wonderful tanks of the 'Acquario,' in the collection and preparation of choice specimens for museums, in the supply of laboratory material and mounted microscopic objects to universities, in the facilities afforded

The Zoological Station from the Edge of the Sea.

for research, or in the educational influence and inspiration which all young workers in the laboratory feel—in each and all of these directions the Naples station has a world-wide renown. And the best proof of this reputation for excellence is seen in the long list of biologists from all civilized countries who year after year obtain material from the station or enroll as workers in the laboratory. Close on 1,200 naturalists have now, since the opening of the zoological station in 1873, occupied work-tables, and, as these men have come from and gone back to practically all the important laboratories of the world, Naples may fairly claim to have been for the last quarter-century a great international meeting ground of biologists, and so to have exercised a stimulating and coordinating influence upon biological research which it would be difficult to overestimate.

The success of the institution has caused constant additions and has stimulated the staff to fresh undertakings. To the original aquarium and zoological laboratories a second building mainly for botany and physiology and the preparation of specimens was soon added; and it is said that a third is in contemplation. In the meantime additional accommodation has been obtained during the last decade by a rearrangement of the roof of the main building. This gives space for a second large zoological laboratory, a supplementary library and various smaller rooms, used as chemical and physiological laboratories, for photography

Landing Place of the Fisherman at Posilipo, Naples.

and for bacteriology. A good deal of the research in recent years, both on the part of those occupying work-tables and of the permanent staff, has been in the direction of comparative physiology, experimental embryology and the bacteriology of sea-water, and all necessary facilities for such work are now provided.

The laboratories contain accommodation for over fifty scientific men to work, and each such work-place, known technically as a 'table,' consists either of a small room or of an alcove or a portion screened off from a larger room. Such tables are rented at £100 a year, not to individuals, but to states or universities or committees, and of the fifty-five tables at present available about thirty-four are permanently engaged—thus bringing in a considerable annual subsidy to the administration. Germany takes some ten of these tables, and Italy seven. There are, I believe, three American tables—one belonging to the Women's Association—and there are three English (rented by the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and the British Association respectively), consequently there are generally about half-a-dozen English and American biologists at work in the station; but Dr. Dohrn interprets in a most liberal spirit the rules as to the occupancy of a table, and, as a matter of fact, during a recent visit of the present writer there were, for a short time, no less than three of us on the books m occupying simultaneously the British Association table, but in reality all provided with separate rooms.

Work Places in the La hue Laboratory.

A work-table is then really a small laboratory fitted up with all that is necessary for ordinary biological research, and additional apparatus and reagents can be obtained as required. The investigator is supposed to bring his own microscope and dissecting instruments, but is supplied with alcohols, acids, stains and other chemicals, glass dishes and bottles of various kinds and sizes, drawing materials and mounting reagents. Requisition forms are placed beside the worker on which to notify his wishes in regard to material and reagents; he is visited at frequent intervals by members of the scientific staff; he has an attendant to look after his room and help in other ways, and in fact all his reasonable wants are supplied in the most perfect manner. A scientific man, or woman, then, wishing to do a special research at the Naples station must be appointed to a particular table for a definite time by his government, university or the controlling committee of that 'table,' and this is the system which has worked so well for over quarter of a century and which gives a certain stamp and tradition to some at least of the tables.

The opportunities for taking part in collecting expeditions at sea are most valuable to the young naturalist, and especially to such as have not had previous experience of the rich Mediterranean fauna. Dredging, 'plankton' collection and fishing are carried on daily in the Bay of Naples by means of the two little steamers (the 'Johannes Müller' and the 'Francis Balfour’—both classic names in biology) belonging to the

In the Library.

station, and by a flotilla of fishing and other smaller boats which start for work in the very early morning and return laden with treasure in time to supply the workers in the laboratory for the day. Many of the Neapolitan fishermen are more or less in the employ of the station and bring to the laboratory such rare specimens as they may chance to find in their day's work.

Chevalier Dr. S. Lo Bianco, the genial chief of the collecting and preserving department, has a phenomenal knowledge of the marine fauna, and of where, when and how to catch any particular thing—and, moreover, of how best to preserve it when caught. Each afternoon he visits the laboratories and ascertains the wants of the workers, each night he gives his orders to his crews of fishermen, with various hints as to likely haunts and the best tactics to pursue; and the following morning sees a procession of tubs and baskets filled with glass jars, containing the specimens rich and rare, being conveyed from the little dock to the laboratory—generally balanced in wonderful piles on the heads of the stalwart and picturesque boatmen. Dredging expeditions during the day along the shores or to the neighboring bay of Pozzuoli take place in the steam launch, and workers who wish to search for some special animal or who are studying the fauna can join such trips. Then about once a fortnight or so a longer excursion is organized, say to Ischia or to Capri, occupying the whole day, and to this all in the laboratory who care for it are invited. It is on these occasions that Cav. Lo Bianco is seen—if I may say so with all respect—in his glory; directing all proceedings, the center of all activities, full of geniality and information, he is the life and soul of the party. He speaks to us in any language, and knows everything we catch on land or sea; patting the fishermen on the back, talking seriously with the strictly scientific, joking with the more versatile, sympathizing if necessary with the seasick and helping everyone to enjoy the day and profit by the experience, he is an ideal leader of the marine biological picnic.

The finest specimens caught or those not required for immediate investigation are either most skilfully preserved for museums or pass into the tanks of the aquarium. And it is possible, without ever going to sea, to gain a very fair idea of the local Mediterranean fauna from that last named part of the institution. The beauty and interest of the aquarium are due, of course, in great measure to the brilliancy and abundance of the rich fauna in the neighboring waters, but also in part to scientific knowledge and skill. The tanks are most carefully watched and governed, and their exact condition is always known—the temperature, specific gravity, number of bacteria present, and other particulars of the water, are constantly tested and considered. The public admiring the tanks in the ground floor little know of the 'council of war' occasionally summoned in the laboratory upstairs consisting of experts in the subjects concerned, chemistry, biology, bacteriology, to examine some unusual sample or settle some delicate question. And so, by much care and thought, results and effects are produced which we admire greatly in the aquarium and which, although no doubt in part due to the latitude, are also dependent upon the scientific knowledge and manipulative skill behind the scenes.

Amongst the fishes, we see in one tank fine specimens of the Muræna—the real old Roman eel—coiling their snake-like bodies through the necks of broken jars just as their ancestors no doubt did two thousand years.ago with the same pots and jars—for those in the tanks are antiques—in the neighboring bay of Baiæ. We can see the Torpedo or

In the Aquarium.

electric ray in an open shallow tank, and by putting the thumb above and the fingers under the animal's flat shoulders, whilst we pull or squeeze the tail with the other hand, an electric shock can be obtained. Octopus, Squids and other Cuttlefish are present in abundance; crabs that mimic their surroundings, those with anemones and with sponges on their backs, animals that look like plants, corals and sea-fans of many kinds, worms that live in leathery tubes a foot long and expand out of the top, like gorgeous flowers six inches across with innumerable spirally-arranged petals—these seem to be the favorites with visitors. But probably the most interesting tanks to the scientific man are those containing the recently caught 'plankton,' the Medusas and other delicate and gelatinous surface organisms. There is one marvelous creature that can be seen almost nowhere else, the Cestus veneris, which is like an undulating, pulsating band of light, in some positions absolutely transparent, in others flashing iridescent fire like a diamond from its sides. So much for the public aquarium, which, at an admission fee of two francs, brings in to the institution a revenue of about £1,000 a year. Now a word as to the publications of the station.

Workers at Naples are free to publish the results of their investigations where they like, and records of the good work in all departments of biology which has been done at this station are to be found in all civilized countries in the form of memoirs and articles contributed to the scientific periodicals of the world. But still a considerable amount of the whole, including a number of the more extended, more solid and more noteworthy contributions, has been published at Naples as a noble series of monographs on the 'Fauna and Flora of the Gulf of Naples'—each monograph being one or more quarto volumes, richly illustrated, and dealing with one particular group of animals, or a section thereof. This great series, of which 26 monographs have now appeared, is amongst the most cherished possessions of every zoological library. Besides these monographs fourteen volumes of a smaller yearly journal, the 'Mittheilungen,' have been published containing shorter but still important papers, and Dr. Paul Mayer also edits a yearly summary or record, the 'Zoologischer Jahresbericht,' of the advances made in all departments of zoology in all parts of the world.

But although the work of the Naples Zoological Station is thus many-sided, the leading idea is certainly original research. An investigator usually goes to Naples to make some particular discovery, and he goes there because he knows he will find material, facilities and environment such as exist nowhere else in the same favorable combination. As a result of the splendid pioneer work which Dr. Dohrn has done at Naples, every civilized country has now established its own biological stations, some larger, some smaller; but although these are of prime importance amongst scientific institutions, as enabling the young investigator to commence research in living material without leaving home, it must not be thought that they detract from the advantages of a visit to the Naples station, or affect the commanding position of that unique University of Natural History. Notwithstanding Woods Holl, Heligoland and Plymouth—aye, and any others that are likely to follow—Naples is still the Mecca of the young biologist and remains the greatest biological station in the world.

Henry Cavendish

  1. From notes taken on a recent visit to the Zoological Station at Naples.