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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

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) was founded in 1888 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Woods Hole was already the site for the government’s US Fish Commission Laboratory directed by Spencer Fullerton Baird, and it seemed like the obvious place to add an independent research laboratory that would draw individual scientific investigators along with students and instructors for courses. From the beginning, the lab had the dual mission of teaching and research, and from the beginning leading biologists have found their way to this small village on the “heel” tip of Cape Cod.

Supported by trustees who were largely in the Boston area, the lab opened its doors that first year with one small wooden building and great enthusiasm. Advertising was largely word of mouth since the building was still being constructed and the supplies had not yet arrived up to the last minute. Nonetheless, eight students and seven investigators made up the pioneer group in a six week session with a budget of just over $10,000 to build and equip the new laboratory building. With a focus on marine life, Balfour H. Van Vleck served as first instructor for a general zoology course.

The second year brought considerable expansion to six instructors and the addition of botany. After that, the lab was on its way to becoming an international presence in marine biology and eventually in certain defined areas of biology generally. From the beginning, embryology was one of the primary focus areas of the lab, and it has remained so throughout the MBL’s 120-plus years. The leadership of the laboratory had a strong embryological interest from the beginning, as did the individual investigators and trustees. Especially when the work was experimental, the emphasis was sometimes labeled “physiology” instead of “experimental embryology” to get at fundamental processes of development.

Charles Otis Whitman served as first director of the lab. He had directed the small private Allis Lake Laboratory near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, then directed the biology program at Clark University, and then the biology program at the University of Chicago. Whitman was an able administrator who inspired people intellectually, and he somehow managed to make things work even when money was short. This is probably due in large part to the talents of Frank Rattray Lillie, who followed Whitman at Chicago and at the MBL where he became Assistant Director and then second Director. Where Whitman left financial matters to hope, saying things like “well, what is money for?,” Lillie was an astute manager with support from his wealthy brother-in-law Charles Crane and other individuals and foundations. Whitman and Lillie made a fine team, and they attracted a board of trustees that included top research biologists and also loyal donors. This has remained true, as the MBL has developed a Corporation of research scientists who pay a membership to be part of the group, plus installed a governing Board of Trustees to oversee operations. Despite some challenging times and some tempting take-over offers, the lab has always remained independent; research and instruction both have increasingly come to rely on federal grants and private foundations but the lab has resisted various attempts to make it an arm of a university, the government, or other organizations.

In 1890 the lab started a series of evening lectures that became known as the Friday Evening Lectures. The goals of offering these lectures and advertising them widely to the public were twofold: first to take science to the larger public and increase interest in science, and second to bring specialists together to learn from each other. Lecturers were instructed to make their talks accessible to beginners as well as of value to senior researchers. These were not intended to be courses, but rather to supplement the systematic organized instruction of the courses. For the years 1890–1899, the lectures were published as the Biological Lectures Delivered at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Holl.

Courses included zoology, of course, and botany starting in the second year. In addition, Jacques Loeb added physiology as a focus. By 1893 the lab announced instruction in zoology, botany, embryology, physiology, and microscopical technique. In particular, Whitman was directing a course of lectures in embryology, working with Lillie. The Embryology Course has remained a core part of the MBL instructional offerings since 1893, with additional specialized training programs at different times with different emphases.

From the beginning, individuals or institutions could rent lab space and carry out investigations. Since embryological research drew heavily on comparative studies of marine development, it made sense for universities to send their embryologists to the seashore to do work. As Philip Pauly noted, the combination of doing one’s research while summering at the seashore was a tremendously attractive option. The MBL has always been a place for the world’s top embryologists to gather in the labs, in lectures, on sailing picnics, and with their families at the beaches. Annual Reports show the range of work done at the MBL, and since 1897 the publication of the Biological Bulletin has added an outlet for research carried out by MBL researchers and others.

For the early decades of the lab, embryological work centered on descriptive and comparative studies, especially cell lineage work that reported the details of each cell division for as long as it could be followed in each organism. Different researchers took up different organisms and compared their results, developing concepts of determinative and regulatory development depending on how much the cell divisions could respond to changing environmental conditions. Edmund Beecher Wilson placed cells at the center of developmental research, with his masterful The Cell in Development and Inheritance (1896; second edition 1900; much revised third edition 1925). Then the early twentieth-century brought experimental embryology, and by the 1950s and 1960s embryology embraced genetics and became known as developmental biology. Leaders such as James Ebert and Eric Davidson led the lab and also the Embryology Course in the direction of studying differentiation through processes like organogenesis or genetic regulation of development, for example.

While other places often gave up the embryos, the MBL has retained an interest not just in the cells and molecules but also in the developing organisms, which exist in specific environments and depend on complex systems of interacting cell signals and environmental cues. The Embryology Course and the investigation carried out in labs has changed over the 120-plus years at the MBL, but the MBL has played an important role in securing the central place of embryos and the value of comparative study of developmental processes. Perhaps being near the organisms and being able to have them delivered directly from the collectors in the Supply Department makes them more real and the interactions of the parts more salient.

Complex systems, modeling, molecules, and physiological systems all join together in the study of marine and related material at the Marine Biological Laboratory. Researchers have gone out to collect their specimens and have kept them alive in the on-demand seawater running through designated pipes. They have studied normal development, pathologies, and experimental conditions. Generation, regeneration, and new generation are on the research agenda. As the Annual Reports show starting with the very first years, the MBL has been a place for leading investigation and instruction in several areas including embryology, neurobiology, and physiology. Over the years, this has placed the MBL in a solid position to develop such diverse promising areas of research as molecular genetics, neuroembryology, and regenerative medicine.

View a timeline of the MBL here.


  1. Lillie, Frank R. The Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1944. Reprinted as a Supplement to The Biological Bulletin Vol. 174 (1988) available at http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/17426.
  2. Maienschein, Jane. 100 Years Exploring Life, 1888–1988. Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1989.
  3. Marine Biological Laboratory Annual Reports: available in the MBL 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.
  4. Marine Biological Laboratory. Symposium Supplement to The Biological Bulletin Vol. 168 (1985): 1–204.
  5. Pauly, Philip. “Summer Resort and Scientific Discipline: Woods Hole and the Structure of American Biology, 1882–1925.” In The American Development of Biology, eds. Ronald Rainger, Keith R. Benson, and Jane Maienschein, 121–150., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) was founded in 1888 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Woods Hole was already the site for the government 's US Fish Commission Laboratory directed by Spencer Fullerton Baird, and it seemed like the obvious place to add an independent research laboratory that would draw individual scientific investigators along with students and instructors for courses.

Created: 2008-10-24

James David Ebert (1921-2001)

James David Ebert (1921-2001)

James David Ebert studied the developmental processes of chicks and of viruses in the US during the twentieth century. He also helped build and grow many research institutions, such as the Department of Embryology in the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Baltimore, Maryland and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. When few biologists studied the biochemistry of embryos, Ebert built programs and courses around the foci of biochemistry and genetics, especially with regards to embryology. He eventually directed the MBL's Embryology Course, and later, the MBL itself.

Ebert was born on 11 December 1921 in the town of Bentleyville, Pennsylvania. He attended public schools while growing up and then graduated from Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1942. Not long after graduation he joined the United States Navy and eventually became a lieutenant. Ebert was stationed on a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean that was attacked by a kamikaze pilot. The destroyer sank and Ebert spent twenty-four hours in the ocean until being rescued. Afterwards, as a biologist, Ebert befriended and trained several Japanese developmental biologists.

In 1946 Ebert began working towards his PhD in developmental biology under the instruction of Benjamin Willier at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In the same year he married Alma Goodwin, who was a Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency during the war. Ebert received his PhD in 1950 and immediately became a member of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After one year at MIT, Ebert moved to Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Ebert became an associate professor of zoology by 1955, and he had started a program of experimental embryology. He studied chick embryos and the processes by which the protein make-up of the embryos changed throughout development.

Six years after receiving his PhD, Ebert became the director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Embryology, in Baltimore, Maryland. Prior to Ebert's term as director, the department had had three other directors. The Institution's president, Caryl Haskins, had contemplated closing the department and starting something new. However, with some persuasion from Willier, Haskins spoke with Ebert and decided to give him the opportunity to run the department. Ebert and Haskins agreed that the department needed to focus on the study of genes and their regulation as well as the ways cells influence one another. Haskins said that Ebert's youth and enthusiastic personality made Haskins believe that Ebert would provide a fresh perspective to the department.

Ebert argued that it was his job to recognize and to recruit new talent and then support them in their work. He stressed the use of biochemistry and genetics, which in the 1960s blended together to form molecular biology. During this time, Ebert started to study the relationship between muscle cell differentiation and the propensity to infection in the Rous sarcoma virus.

While still director of the Carnegie embryology department, in 1970 Ebert also became the president and nonresident director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole. At the MBL he researched, with Keiko Ozato, the response of murine lymphocytes to mitogens.

In 1977 Ebert ended his term at the Carnegie Department of Embryology, but he remained the director of the MBL. From 1978 until 1987, Ebert lived in Washington, D.C., and he was the president of the whole Carnegie Institution of Washington. As the institution's president, he made the decision to help build a large optical telescope in Chile at Las Campanas Observatory, and he worked towards the creation of a common campus for both Carnegie departments in Washington.

Ebert remained involved with scientific institutions for the rest of his life. When leaving one institution, he found another one to join. He retired from the Carnegie Institution in 1987 and became the president of the Chesapeake Bay Institute at the Johns Hopkins University, where he was a professor of biology for six years. Ebert was elected to many societies including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine. He was the vice president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1981 through 1993 and he also chaired its Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable from 1987 through 1993. His colleagues elected him as president of the Society for the Study of Development and Growth, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and the American Society of Zoologists.

In retirement, Ebert and his wife Alma spent half of each year in Woods Hole and at the MBL. Ebert and Alma died on 22 May 2001 in an automobile accident while en route to Woods Hole.


  1. DeHaan, Robert L., and James D. Ebert. "Morphogenesis." Annual Review of Physiology 26 (1964): 15–46.
  2. Ebert, James D. "An analysis of the effects of anti-organ sera on the development, in vitro, of the early chick blastoderm." Journal of Experimental Zoology 115 (1950): 351–77.
  3. Ebert, James D. "An analysis of the synthesis and distribution of the contractile protein, myosin, in the development of the heart." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 39 (1953): 333–44.
  4. Ebert, James D. "The effects of chorioallantoic transplants of adult chicken tissues on homologous tissues of the host chick embryo." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 40 (1954): 337–47.
  5. Ebert, James D. "The formation of muscle and muscle-like elements in the chorioallantoic membrane following inoculation of a mixture of cardiac microsomes and Rous sarcoma virus." Journal of Experimental Zoology 142 (1959): 587–621.
  6. Ebert, James D., and Ian M. Sussex. Interacting Systems in Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
  7. Ebert, James D., and Fred H. Wilt. "Animal Viruses and Embryos." The Quarterly Review of Biology 35 (1960): 261–312.
  8. Obituaries. "Jim and Alma Ebert." Marine Biological Laboratory. http://www.mbl.edu/news/obit/obit_ebert.html (Accessed December 8, 2007).
  9. Ozato, Keiko, William H. Adler, and James D. Ebert. "Synergism of bacterial lipopolysaccharides and concanavalin A in the activation of thymic lymphocytes." Cellular Immunology 17 (1975): 532–41.
  10. Singer, Maxine. "James David Ebert." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 148 (2004): 124–27.

James David Ebert studied the developmental processes of chicks and of viruses in the US during the twentieth century. He also helped build and grow many research institutions, such as the Department of Embryology in the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Baltimore, Maryland and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. When few biologists studied the biochemistry of embryos, Ebert built programs and courses around the foci of biochemistry and genetics, especially with regards to embryology.

Created: 2008-09-12