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the story of the bureau of commercial fisheries biological laboratory woods hole, massachusetts

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Experiments with hatching marine fish eggs during 1880 showed that the water around Newport contained an excessive amount of sediment which settled on the eggs and materially impaired their development. Furthermore, the water of this part of Narragansett Bay was polluted by the drainage of a number of large cities (Newport, Fall River, Bristol, Providence, and others). The water around Gloucester was also found unsuitable because of high turbidity caused by sediment. The conditions at Woods Hole were totally different. Baird (1884) describes them in the following words: "the water is exceptionally pure and free from sediment, and where a strong tide, rushing through the Woods Hole passage, keeps the water in a state of healthy oxygenation especially favorable for biological research of every kind and description. The entire absence of sewage, owing to the remoteness of large towns, as well as the absence of large rivers tending to reduce the salinity of the water, constituted a strong argument in its favor, and the station was finally fixed upon for the purpose in question." From a biological standpoint the decision was sound and, as further developments have shown, the laboratories at Woods Hole have been supplied with sea water of high purity. At the present time, however, due to the greater population density, increase in the size of the scientific institutions, and large numbers of pleasure boats visiting the harbor during the summer months, the water has become polluted to such an extent that the taking of shellfish from Woods Hole Harbor is no longer permitted by sanitary regulations and swimming in Great Harbor is discouraged.

Another biologically important characteristic of Woods Hole water mentioned by Baird remains unchanged. Due to the absence of large fresh-water streams, the salt concentration of Woods Hole sea water is nearly constant throughout the year and does not vary with the alternate changes of the tides. There are very few locations along the eastern coast of the United States and in the Gulf of Mexico where such a stability in the salinity of water can be found. As Baird visualized it many years ago, this constitutes a great advantage for "biological research of every kind and description."

The decision regarding the character of the marine laboratory to be established at Woods Hole was influenced by the success of the first laboratory of this type organized in 1870-74 by Anton Dohrn in Naples, Italy. The latter laboratory, which up to the present day remains a mecca for biologists working with marine material, was established as a private enterprise, financed primarily through subscriptions by different European colleges and universities for the use of laboratory facilities. Baird thought that the first permanent marine laboratory in the United States should also include a school of marine biology. His plans had to be modified to conform with the policies of Congress. He realized great difficulties in obtaining Congressional appropriation for the purchase of land for the laboratory and entered into negotiations with the owners of most desirable tracts of land on the shore of Great Harbor in Woods Hole. At the same time he persuaded a number of influential and wealthy persons to give financial support to his project. Joseph S. Fay, a leading citizen of Woods Hole (fig. 14) donated three acres of land along North Street. The tract comprised a narrow strip between the shores of Great Harbor and North Street (present Bar Neck Road); it extended beyond the end of North Street in a northwesterly direction for about 425 feet along the breakwater on the northern shore of Buzzards Bay and ended at the boundary line of the Pacific Guano Company. Two other parcels of land not contingent with Fay's property, one along Water Street (known also as County Road) of 0.9 acres in area, and the larger piece in 1.5 acres along the east shore of Great Harbor were acquired by purchase with the money contributed by various parties. The annual report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries for 1883, lists the following parties who contributed the money:

Old Colony Railroad Company $2,500

John M. Forbes 1,000

Alexander Agassiz 500

Johns Hopkins University 1,000

Princeton University 1,000

Williams College 500

Isaiah Spindel and Company 500

Mrs. Robert L. Stuart 250

The subscribed funds and the land donated by Fay were available to the Fish commission only in the event of an appropriation by the U.S. Government for necessary improvements. The titles of the tracts of land to be conveyed to the U.S. Government were investigated by the U.S. District Attorney for Massachusetts and pronounced valid. Full jurisdiction over the land in question was ceded by the State of Massachusetts on March 30, 1882. The value of the property which the U.S. Fish Commission received as a gift from private citizens and organizations was estimated not less than $15,000.

To facilitate the transaction, the deed to Fay's land in consideration of one dollar and the funds contributed by others were turned over to Charles F. Choate and J. Malclom Forbes as Trustees. They purchased the two smaller parcels from individual owners and, on April 20, 1883, conveyed all the acquired property, including the deed to Fay's land, to the United States Government.

To obtain the contributions, Baird offered the universities continuous use of research tables in the proposed laboratory. In a letter of September 3, 1881, to Forbes, Baird wrote as follows: ". . . .I have written to Alexander Agassiz (fig. 15) asking him if he would like to join in the enterprise and promising him a perpetual right to a table in the laboratory and the facilities of the station to be utilized by anyone he may designate. This is the system adopted at the Naples Aquarium, where establishment by this means has been successfully maintained."

Baird (1885, p. LIV) states: "The colleges in question and Mr. Agassiz made their contributions with the understanding that, as far as possible, they were each to be allowed to send one specialist to the station for the purpose of carrying on scientific research." This promise was continued to be honored by his successors. On one occasion, in May, 1895, Commissioner McDonald denied the privilege and stated "this agreement, as a matter of contract, is not authorized by law; as a matter of courtesy, it has been and will be carried out unless something intervenes to make it impossible." (Letter on file at the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.) Conklin (1944) writes that "when, on one occasion, this privilege was cancelled by a Commissioner of Fisheries, Mr. Agassiz fought the order with characteristic vigor, and it was rescinded."

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