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The Marine Biological Laboratory-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Library

The Marine Biological Laboratory-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Library

In 1888 when students and investigators arrived in Woods Hole for the inaugural session of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), they recognized the need for a library collection of books and journals. The one wooden building on campus, later known as Old Main, housed everything, with researchers upstairs and the student laboratory downstairs. Lectures were held in one corner, and shelves held what books and journals were contributed. As the first MBL Director Charles Otis Whitman noted in his 1888 Annual Report, having a library was absolutely essential for the success of the lab and would have to be provided somehow. The initial core volumes should include reference works and textbooks, and also the important journals in the four languages thought to be essential at the time.

By the second year, Whitman’s report expressed gratitude for the many contributions to the library. For Whitman, a “comprehensive biological library” would be the foundation on which a first rate laboratory would be built. Both research and instruction depend on such a resource. This early commitment to building a comprehensive journal collection as well as collecting the most important books has paid off, so that the library has been called a “national treasure” and has long been arguably the best complete and focused collection of life science journals available.

The vision for a great library was essential in attracting donations of funds to purchase journals and books, of course, but there were also other strategies for collecting. Visitors to the lab were invited to submit reprints and other research materials. When the MBL began publishing The Biological Bulletin in 1899, they immediately established an exchange program with other journals and publishers. This exchange program was critical especially in the years of WWI and again in WW II, when few libraries had funds to purchase volumes and international cooperation was more challenging. Yet it was possible to continue publishing copies of their own publications and to exchange them later when regular mailings resumed. As a result, the MBL-WHOI (the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) library has complete runs of most journals even when other libraries are missing those difficult years. When funds were available, the MBL purchased back issues to fill in incomplete runs and binding of individual issues into volumes became a priority very quickly (as mentioned in the fifth annual report). In 1895 Whitman urged that $1000 per year was needed just to sustain the current level of library acquisition.

In the report for the years 1896–1899, Cornelia Clapp provided the first official “Report on the Library.” Clapp had been the first student to arrive at the lab in 1888 and had returned as an investigator; she also became the first woman trustee in 1910 and served in that role until her death in 1934. It is fitting that she served as first librarian, enthusiastically growing and protecting the collection that she also used. Though referred to as “Miss Cornelia M. Clapp, Librarian,” she held a PhD from Syracuse University in 1888 and another PhD from the University of Chicago, where she worked with Whitman. In her first report she acknowledged the many gifts to the lab, including the accumulating files of papers contributed by lab researchers themselves. She appealed for more funds for purchasing and binding journals. This remained the theme for many years.

At first the library collection was housed in the shelves along one end of the wooden building. One year, many of the volumes seemed to have disappeared, but the next summer they were discovered tucked up into the roof, apparently for protection from storms though not successfully protected from all the birds. As the collections continued to grow, they added to the demand for more space. Finally, when the first permanent brick building was constructed in 1914, the library had a safe and protected home. This building, funded by second MBL Director Frank Rattray Lillie’s father-in-law Charles Crane, and named the Crane Building, gave the MBL a way to demonstrate to all potential donors and supporters that the MBL intended to last forever and to make an impact with its research and teaching missions.

The library budget remained $1000 a year, and despite its new secure home, collections depended very much on donations. Individuals donated money and books, journal exchanges expanded, and the librarians persuaded publishers to donate volumes that were then put on a New Book shelf as advertising, so that visiting scientists would go back home and have their institutional libraries buy them. In 1913 H. Mc. E. Knower served as librarian and in his report strongly urged that the library needed an assistant to serve as a year-round librarian. Just having a volunteer scientist in the summer was not enough, since the collections were often left in a chaotic muddle of energetic use by the end of a season and there was nobody there during the rest of the year to straighten things out. Especially as the number of donated reprints grew, and as they received a great deal of use during the summer, it was considerable work just restoring the collection to order. Also, trying to keep on top of all the donations and exchanges during the summer alone was insufficient.

With a new building and library facility, it was time to hire a librarian. Miss May E. Scott accepted the position and developed new catalogs, formally reaccessioned all the materials, and determined that the library had over 3300 volumes, plus about 1500 reprints. During the first year of her service, the library bound over five hundred volumes, replaced missing numbers, and added many more items. With a generous donation of over 2500 duplicates from the American Museum of Natural History, the library had achieved a new level of excellence.

Through the years, major donations have come at critical times from such groups and foundations as the Carnegie Foundation, and the General Education Board ($10,000 in 1926), so that after a period of intense growth, by 1926 the library had already grown to 18, 220 volumes plus a carefully catalogued 38,000 reprints.

In 1924 the library moved to what became the five permanent stacks in the Lillie Building—a substantial brick building that extended the Crane laboratories. The building was constructed with major donations of well over one million dollars, especially from Rockefeller Foundation and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. personally, Carnegie Corporation, and Charles Crane. The tremendous collaborative success shows just how highly the MBL was regarded as a place of life science research and education.

After Jane Fessenden became Librarian, the staff and collections grew considerably, as did their use. By the 1980s, it was becoming clear that the library was gathering a substantial collection, including some very valuable books and complete runs of journals that could not be replaced. The Rare Books Room and Archives opened in the 1980s after Cathy Norton took over as Librarian. The library moved to electronic publishing, with an emphasis on providing access for scientists in a way that successfully archives publications for continued use.

The Rare Books Room and Archives contain rare books, of course, a catalog of which is available to anyone since the MBL-WHOI Library is committed to making materials available for use rather than preserving them in ways that exclude legitimate scholarly access. There are some artifacts, including a few items from courses or Albert Szent-Gyorgyi’s Nobel Prize for his work on vitamin C in Hungarian paprika peppers. The collection includes a few archival files, including some from Frank Lillie that were transferred to the MBL from the University of Chicago, as well as some notebooks, scrapbooks, and letters. And the collection has brought together valuable historical research materials into library exhibits, including the Leuckart Charts and other collections. In addition, the MBL is home to marvelous MBL Library Photograph Collections, featuring early photographs dating back to before the MBL was founded, a number of scrapbooks, and the wonderful Alfred Frances Huettner Collection.

Today the library serves both the MBL and WHOI, based on a decision to combine resources to make an internationally leading library rather than to compete in the same small village of Woods Hole. The MBL-WHOI library provides services for library researchers, some of whom draw mainly on the electronic journals, and Library Director Cathy Norton has become a leader in promoting bioinformatics and extending the use of the collections through networks of users.

As a result, one might be tempted to think that there is no reason to come to the actual MBL, since one can sit home and access modern journals on line. But this remains a vibrant place of science in the labs and in the courses. The library is a place where readers can find everything, pull it off the shelf, and see what else was going on in the same journal or at the same time. For at least the past decades, the MBL has seen a number of library readers who come precisely because they can find whatever they need “right there.” Recently, the library has added the formal category of Library Researcher, for those who come to spend a sabbatical, finish a major book project, or to collaborate with other scholars while using the library resources. The MBL-WHOI Library is very much an active place to find many kinds of wonderful materials but also a great place to find other people who know things and know where to find more materials. This place will never become obsolete because it is leading library information systems development, as through the Encyclopedia of Life Project and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. And this is also where the archival materials are housed and where scholars will find those materials and other scholars studying them.


  1. Marine Biological Laboratory Annual Reports: available in the MBL The Biological Bulletin Vols. 17 and 21–105 at http://www.archive.org/details/biologicalbullet01mari and beginning with 2004 at http://www.mbl.edu/governance/gov_annual_report.html.

In 1888 when students and investigators arrived in Woods Hole for the inaugural session of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), they recognized the need for a library collection of books and journals. The one wooden building on campus, later known as Old Main, housed everything, with researchers upstairs and the student laboratory downstairs. Lectures were held in one corner, and shelves held what books and journals were contributed.

Created: 2008-10-25

The Marine Biological Laboratory Embryology Course

The Marine Biological Laboratory Embryology Course

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, began in 1888 to offer opportunities for instruction and research in biological topics. For the first few years, this meant that individual investigators had a small lab space upstairs in the one wooden building on campus where students heard their lectures and did their research in a common area downstairs. The lectures for those first years offered an overview of general biology with a focus on zoology, and they were intended for teachers and graduate students interested in acquiring the background for teaching about and/or actually doing laboratory work. As the lab quickly grew, it added sets of lectures that made up courses in zoology, then botany, then physiology, and in 1893 what became the first Embryology Course.

The 1890s were a lively time in embryology, with new techniques and discoveries related to the roles of cells in development, and a growing excitement about the way that experimental embryological manipulations could reveal processes that otherwise remain inside the usually opaque embryo. The MBL recognized the importance of this work and began their course in embryology, which was offered as an elementary course in vertebrate embryology. This was designed for those who had already had the general course, and it had the appeal of offering something more advanced that would bring students back for an additional year. The goal that first year was to allow students to discover the details of development, and to learn the methods for doing the work. The six-week course was directed by Charles Otis Whitman, who was the MBL director, and his student and protégé Frank Rattray Lillie, who became Whitman’s Assistant Director and then his successor as Director both at the MBL and also at the Biology Department at the University of Chicago.

Students were expected to bring their own equipment, including a compound microscope, a dissecting microscope (and it was specified that the Paul Meyer pattern made by Zeiss was the best of the kind), a camera lucida , microtome, and other standard embryological equipment to make up a “complete outfit.” Each student was given a supply of fish eggs and expected to follow the stages of development starting with fertilization. The camera lucida was to facilitate drawing, which was an important part of embryological work until relatively recently. The students all learned the most up-to-date techniques for observing, preserving, embedding, fixing, staining, and then drawing, reconstructing, and modeling embryological processes. The course cost fifty dollars for a number of years and was limited to a dozen students.

For the second year, students were required to have not just a general biology course but also an anatomy course as a pre-requisite. The course continued until 1901, when the lab had grown enough that the course expanded its staff and added zoology as a pre-requisite. The goal of the course was not just to teach the basics of embryology but also to prepare students to take up independent investigations of their own. In addition, the course announcements emphasized the value of studying such a subject at the MBL. Here it was not necessary to rely on preserved developmental stages fixed to slides, but it was possible also to study the living material available during a summer at the seashore. The course continued, with new directors and instructors and with students going on to their own research and sometimes returning as instructors themselves.

Only in 1921 did the course begin to cost seventy-five dollars. Hubert Goodrich became director in 1922 and remained so until 1942. This was an important time for embryology, and the course clearly offered the basics in experimental techniques and introduction to modern theory. It probably served as a very valuable introduction for many young scientists, who encountered living material, interacted with established researchers, and learned how to use equipment and techniques not just to see what others had reported before but also how to ask new questions and prod the embryos to yield answers.

1942 brought a continuation of the basic approach but also a new director. Viktor Hamburger had served as an instructor (view PDF [10.1 MB] of original Hamburger lecture notes) since 1937, shortly after he had taken his experience in Hans Spemann’s lab in Germany to the University of Chicago. There, Lillie undoubtedly lured him to the MBL for the summer and put him to work. Hamburger directed the Embryology Course from 1942 through 1945, when long-time instructor, Donald Costello from the University of North Carolina, took over through 1950. Where Hamburger looked at neuroembryology in his own work and emphasized patterns of development and causes of differentiation, Costello was especially interested in comparative invertebrate embryology. No doubt their approaches worked together well, and the course retained its flavor of lab research drawing on the natural history of the marine offerings.

In the 1950s S. Meryl Rose from the University of Illinois and then Mac V. Edds from Brown University directed the course. This is a period when such notables as John Tyler Bonner of Princeton University, with his enthusiasm for slime molds and problems of morphogenesis, John P. Trinkaus (known as Trink), Clifford Grobstein from the National Cancer Center, Philip Grant from Johns Hopkins University, John W. Saunders from Marquette University, and others brought new perspectives to the traditional course. Throughout this period and dating back to the 1940s, they listed a set of books that students should have, and the list remained surprisingly constant in ways that would be unlikely in this rapidly changing field today.

In 1962 James Ebert at the Carnegie Institution of Washington became director and things changed. The course description shifted for the next year, and the course fee rose to $300—$150 for the series of lectures plus $150 for those who wished to stay for an additional period of individual investigation. The course was becoming less introductory and more designed for would-be researchers such as graduate students and post-doctoral fellows who wanted to learn advanced techniques and to hear about theories and problems in development. The content remained, with additions of Ebert’s specialty work in organogenesis, but Ebert’s five year run as course director made the course at least look more professional in its focus on modern technical topics. This move to professionalism was reinforced by NIH training grants that supported the Embryology and sometimes other courses in the late 1960s and beyond.

In 1971 the course fees rose to $400 + $400, and the announcement made clear that the course was targeted to graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and to advanced undergraduates seriously interested in pursuing research in this field. Also in 1971, Eric Davidson from Cal Tech served as an instructor. In 1972 he became course director and served in that role through 1974, then again from 1988 through 1996, making him the longest-running course director and giving him the opportunity for the greatest impact on the history of the course. He took great advantage of the opportunity to revise and update the course. In fact, Davidson brought the first major changes in the course which was now “centered around one particular conceptual area of developmental biology.” And the emphasis clearly shifted from instruction and introduction to research to a higher level of expected training and investment in research on the part of the participants.

The focus for 1972 was cytoplasmic localization phenomena, for 1973 the synthesis, storage, and utilization of developmental genetic information during oogenesis in vertebrates and invertebrates, and in 1974 “Sequence Organization in the animal genome and transcription-level gene regulation.” This was a significant shift, and arguably Ebert and Davidson in their different ways had done the most to move the traditional popular course into the professional and molecular era of the late twentieth century.

David Epel from the University of California at San Diego brought an emphasis on cells and cell-cell communication with “Cell Interactions, Cell Membranes, and Cell Surfaces in Development” (1975). Then Tom Humphreys from the University of Hawaii joined Epel in offering “Developmental Regulation of Gene Expression” (1976), “Extracellular Signals in Cell Growth and Differentiation” (1977), and “Localization, Pattern Formation, and Morphogenesis” (1978 and 1979). Rudolf Raff from Indiana University directed “The Control of Events in Early Embryology Development” (1980), “Gene Control and the Events of Early Embryonic Development” (1981), and “Cytoplasmic Localization, Determination, and Gene Control in Development” (1982). These years brought a much expanded list of instructors and lecturers, as the field became more complex and it was important to bring together speakers across the wide range of new ideas and techniques.

Then in 1984, under the direction of William Jeffery from the University of Texas at Austin and Bruce Brandhorst from McGill University, the course reverted to the simpler title of “Embryology: A Modern Course in Developmental Biology.” From 1989 through 1996 the title was “Embryology: Cell Differentiation and Gene Expression in Early Development” and from 1997 to present, it has been “Embryology: Concepts and Techniques in Modern Developmental Biology.”

Discussions by the Education Committee and course directors at various points show that the MBL considered whether to change the name to reflect more current thinking, namely with an emphasis on developmental biology and an emphasis on molecular genetics rather than the traditional embryology. They decided to stick with the traditional course that is now more than one hundred and fifteen years old and instead added other January short courses focused on developmental and molecular techniques. Of course the Embryology course, taught in traditional labs, includes a considerable dose of modern molecular work. And students in recent years admit that they no longer go out to muck about and collect specimens themselves, nor do they have any idea where to look in most cases. Yet there is a tie to tradition, to the observations and collections of the past century, and course instructors will send their students to the MBL Rare Books Room to discover something of the history and context of the work that is now so different from and yet so grounded in the traditions of its predecessors.

View a timeline of the directors and instructors here.


  1. Marine Biological Laboratory Annual Announcements: MBL-WHOI Library Special Collections.
  2. Marine Biological Laboratory Annual Reports: available in the MBL The Biological Bulletin Vols. 17 and 21–105 at http://www.archive.org/details/biologicalbullet01mari and beginning with 2004 at http://www.mbl.edu/governance/gov_annual_report.html.

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, began in 1888 to offer opportunities for instruction and research in biological topics. For the first few years, this meant that individual investigators had a small lab space upstairs in the one wooden building on campus where students heard their lectures and did their research in a common area downstairs.

Created: 2007-10-24

The Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Mass. 1935

1 black and white video; sound (musical accompaniment only); reformatted digital

By the 1930s, the MBL had become "the" place to go during the summer for biological research and training. Luminaries such as Frank Lillie, Edmund Beecher Wilson, Edwin Grant Conklin, and Thomas Hunt Morgan took their students, packed up their families and research labs, and headed to the MBL. They worked in labs, ate together in the Mess, and they often lived in the limited on-campus housing. Life at the MBL was a life where fun, family, and science intertwined. This film, taken in 1935 by B. R. Coonfield of Brooklyn College, captures snippets of life at the MBL.

Created: 1935