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Biological Oceanography Department

A Brief History of Biological Oceanography at the MCZ

Oceanographic research at Harvard has it roots in the pioneering work of Louis Agassiz, who, in cooperation with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, began the first deep water dredging for biological specimens and bottom samples on this side of the Atlantic. Agassiz’ interest in the study of marine organisms was also evident in his establishment of the Anderson School of Natural History at Penikese Island at the mouth of Buzzards Bay in 1873. Agassiz died later that year, but it is noteworthy that the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole traces its history to this Agassiz initiative.

Following Agassiz’ death, the interest in marine science that he inspired continued with increasing momentum and broadening scope. His son, Alexander, conducted deep dredging studies in the 1870s with the steamer “Blake” off the east coast of the United States, in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Caribbean. His 1888 two volume work, “Three Cruises of the Blake”, is a must read in the history of biological oceanography. He was the first to introduce wire rope for dredging, leading to deeper sampling and the discovery of many new species, and he was the first to postulate the connection between biological production in surface waters and the nutrition of deep-sea communities. His explorations covered over 100,000 miles of voyages in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and tropical Pacific and were responsible for more lines across deep-sea basins and for more deep-sea soundings than all other scientific expeditions combined up to his time. Many MCZ publications authored by students and assistants of Agassiz described the benthic organisms, zooplankton, and phytoplankton collected on his expeditions.

Although Benjamin Franklin provided the first rough chart of the Gulf Stream (having collected data from ships carrying post to and from England), Agassiz in 1891 published in the “Bulletin of the MCZ” the first full depth analysis of the Gulf Stream based upon eleven transects of the Stream. This work substantially refined Franklin’s chart with new determinations of the central axis of the stream and its limits.

Oceanography at Harvard received another impetus with the studies of Henry Bryant Bigelow ’01, one of Alexander Agassiz’s students. Bigelow pioneered interdisciplinary oceanographic studies on Georges Bank and across the Gulf of Maine, publishing a two thousand page, two volume work in the 1920s on the distribution of plankton and fishes, and physical oceanography of the Gulf of Maine. In 1925 he published an important paper in the journal Science on the respective roles of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current in the circulation of the Gulf of Maine. Bigelow so impressed others with his broad and synthetic view of ocean processes that he was called upon by the National Academy of Sciences to make a survey of the entire province of oceanography and to submit a report as to what steps should be taken in this country to develop oceanography to the stature it had already attained in Europe. His appointment as the founding director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1929 was the direct result of his report.

In a memorial to Alexander Agassiz published in the Bulletin of the MCZ in 1911, the year following his death, Sir John Murray wrote:

If we can say that we now know the physical and biological conditions of the great ocean basins in their broad general outlines–and I believe we can do so – the present state of our knowledge is due to the combined work and observations of a great many men belonging to many nationalities, but most probably more to the work and inspiration of Alexander Agassiz than to any other single man.

Agassiz’ legacy in biological oceanography at the MCZ continues in part due to the bequest that established the Alexander Agassiz Professorships, which specifically identifies ocean science as an area in which these appointments can be made.

During the past three decades oceanographic research undertaken by MCZ faculty, students, and research assistants have pursued the modern equivalents of questions that inspired the MCZ’s pioneers in ocean science. Questions about ecosystem controls on the flux of organic matter into to the deep-sea, “the rain of detritus” (a term first used to A. Agassiz), are highly relevant today as we seek to understand the role of the ocean in the regulation of the atmosphere’s content of carbon dioxide. Some of the modern research on this topic has been focused on the Gulf Stream and in the Caribbean Sea. Another recent focus that couples field observations with new modeling approaches relates to physical-biological interactions in the sea. Massachusetts Bay and the Gulf of Maine continue to be highly appropriate venues for such studies, and papers are now being written on the effects of storms on plankton production in these regions.

For more on contemporary MCZ biological oceanographic research, visit the James J. McCarthy Lab website.