Supply & Sale - The MBL Supply Department (1892–)

Ernest Everett Just’s views in the Collecting Net marked the end of an interesting transition for early 20th century American biologists, at least in terms of division of specialized labor. Early MBL scientists, from the 1880s and 90s, typically knew much about the organism they studied; from the evolutionary relationships between organisms to when the organisms would reproduce each year.  Along with the rise of experimentalism, many scientists became concerned primarily with laboratory work, and left the collecting and care of marine organisms to other forms of specialized labor—notably the local collector. How scientific labor was becoming redistributed sometimes led to disputes; one notable dispute occured between Just and Jacques Loeb, each of whom defended a dramatically different view of what it meant to be a practicing embryologist at the time. Just felt that local knowledge and knowledge about collecting were important facets of what it meant to be a practicing embryologist in the 1920s. Loeb, however, held a position quite the opposite. In contemporary terms, the major difference between the views of Just and Loeb seemed to be whether a scientist should care about organisms or about  mechanisms.

So, in 1928, Just asserted not merely how important and vital collectors were to scientific investigators, but that collecting and care for organisms was becoming a lost art amongst investigators. Year after year in the early 20th century, the supply department at the MBL was praised for having once again made (rather than lost) money. It is an open question exactly how the division of specialized labor came to be in the late 19th and early 20th century, specifically around collecting and care for marine fauna. How did non-scientist collectors become so vital to the institution? Who did these collectors supply? An important line of historical inquiry will be to reflect on how the labor of collecting was distributed and what emerging role the supply department had for collecting and informing investigators about the craft since the laboratory’s founding.

At its founding in 1888, the MBL depended on the U.S. Fisheries Commission for sea going vessels, collecting equipment, flowing seawater, and knowledge about marine organisms in the region. By 1892, the MBL had opened its own Supply Department, “to facilitate the work of teachers and others at a distance who desire to obtain material for study, for class instruction, or for museum purposes” (MBL Annual Report 1896–99). This directive for the Supply Department’s activity was at the encouragement of Dr. Henry C. Bumpus who reported in 1895

over 50 educational institutions have looked to the Marine Biological Laboratory for material for class work. Since the establishment of the laboratory a new method of practical biological teaching has been made possible for schools located far inland as well as for those nearer the shore.

Under the almost 40-year leadership of the Supply Department’s Curator George Gray, who served in that role until 1930, the department grew substantially. While the US Commission of Fish In those very early days at the MBL investigators and students largely collected their own materials for research, so the director’s annual report does not mention supplying investigators with living material when the Supply Department was first established.

It wasn’t long after the supply department opened shop, that they started to acquire sea going vessels for collecting work. Captain John Veeder was in charge of collecting expeditions in those early days, and remained at the MBL for many years doing so. Veeder was in charge of the steamboat, the first of which was known as the Sagitta, which was purchased in 1890. This early steamboat could be seen out on the water towing two to three smaller boats behind. By 1896, the MBL had acquired a small schooner named the Vigilant—which the Sagitta would tow out—and was a favorite of early investigators and students who would go out into Vineyard Sound and the surrounding waters to do their own collecting. In 1907 the Sagitta was replaced by the Cayadetta. Veeder continued to use the Cayadetta steamer until 1933 when he and the ship retired. The 1933 annual report cites economic reasons for the Cayadetta’s discontinued use.

The year 1930, however, marked a turning point for the MBL Supply Department, as it required new leadership after George Gray’s retirement and it needed to contend with new demands for its services.  The 1930 Annual Director’s report details this new purpose and need for new leadership:

In order to fill the vacancy thus created in the Supply Department and to provide for a possible ultimate separation of the two present functions of this Department, namely, that of supplying living material for experimental purposes to workers at the Laboratory and of furnishing preserved material to schools and colleges, the General Biological Supply House of Chicago was invited to assume its temporary management. In preparation for the new arrangement, Dr. D. L. Gamble, representing this firm, spent several months in residence in Woods Hole during the summer of 1930 and has since continued the general supervision of this Department from Chicago with very satisfactory results, being ably assisted by Mr. James McInnis as Resident Manager.

Clearly, the supply department had taken on new roles at the institution and for investigators over its first 30 years. At first merely supplying those at a distance, then later supplying living material to students and investigators locally. This didn’t happen suddenly, and there is no indication that the Supply Department didn’t supply investigators prior to 1930, but the MBL’s institutional records by 1930 reflected the department’s institutional role.

By 1939, the local Falmouth newspaper, the Falmouth Enterprise, featured an article with the headline “M. B. L. Supply Department One of Falmouth’s Largest Businesses.”