Envisioning the MBL: Whitman’s Efforts to Create an Independent Institution

Charles Otis Whitman served as first director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), from 1888-1910.  Whitman brought his graduate student, Frank Rattray Lillie, as his assistant. Lillie would go on to become the second – and long-term – director of the MBL.  Together Whitman and Lillie built the foundations of the MBL. They ordered the construction of the first campus buildings, cultivated a robust network of private and public financial support, and forged a connection with the University of Chicago that continues to the present day. 

While Whitman held vigorously to the vision of an independent institution run by scientists for scientific research and education, he depended on the generosity of individual private donors to meet the frequent budget shortfalls.  He resisted efforts to give up that independence, arguing that only if scientists retained control could scientists achieve the noble ideals of cooperation and coordination. And only then could science remain original and forward-looking.

Whitman’s inspired vision continues to guide MBL research and education, while a strong connection with the University of Chicago (since 2013) makes it possible to retain the intellectual independence Whitman and Lillie worked so hard to achieve.

This exhibit explores Whitman’s vision and central role in founding and directing the MBL. The ideas are captured in his letters in the MBL Archives, now digitized and available at the History Project site.