2009 saw The Marine Biological Association, which was formed in 1884, celebrate its 125th year anniversary. A series of events ran from April 2009 through to April 2010, which served as both a reminder of the prestigious history of the MBA (numerous Nobel Prize winners have carried out research at the Citadel Hill Laboratory) and also as an inspiration for all those involved with the MBA to continue the excellent work in research and education for which the MBA is known. Read more.
As a result of the advances in marine science in the second half of the 1800s many naturalists were beginning to realise that a closer study of the seas and their production was needed. At the International Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883 a committee was formed to establish a British Marine Laboratory. To carry out this intention ‘The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom’ (MBA) was formed at a meeting at the Royal Society on 31 March 1884. Professor T.H. Huxley was elected President and Professor Ray Lankester the Secretary. Huxley thought that overexploitation of the seas was not possible whereas Lankester was very concerned about the effects of the increases in fish landings that were taking place.
At the first meeting of the Association in May 1884 sites for a laboratory were suggested and, by the second meeting, later that year, the Plymouth Town Council had offered a site on the Hoe, and an inspection of the site was arranged. Although the site was on War Department land, problems regarding the lease of the land were overcome. Various organisations and prominent individuals in Plymouth and Devon gave their support and, in many cases, financial help. An appeal for more funds was launched and in February 1887 work was started on the building, which was built of Devonian limestone, and ‘The Plymouth Laboratory’ was opened with due ceremony on 30 June 1888. The original building, based to some extent on the recently constructed Marine Station in Naples, consisted of two three-story blocks linked by a two-story building. In later years more buildings were built behind and to the sides of the main building and a third mansard story was added to the central section of the main building.
The Association consisted, and still does, of fee-paying members who receive a copy of the Journal and have access to the library and free use of space at the Laboratory for one week a year. The governing body of the Association is a Council of elected members, a number of Vice-Presidents and Founders who have contributed to the Association and representatives of learned institutions which had contributed. The President is elected by the Council who also appoint the Director and permanent members of staff. Ever since its formation the Association has been short of funds and the minutes of the Council record the continual efforts of the Director and Council to ensure adequate funding for the Laboratory.
In 1899 the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas set up a series of investigations to study the seas around Europe, and the MBA was asked by the Government to cover the sampling for the English Channel and the southern North Sea. To deal with the North Sea sampling a field station was established at Lowestoft and this later became the Government Fisheries Laboratory. The studies then carried out by the MBA were the start of the regular sampling of the Western English Channel which has continued by the MBA, with various modifications and some breaks due to wars and financial constraints, ever since. The records from these long-term studies are now proving extremely useful for studying the changes that have happened, and are still happening, in the English Channel.
By 1899 a steam tug was being chartered to carry out studies in the Western English Channel and this was leading to the development of new techniques for collecting and studying samples at sea. In 1901, with financial help from G.P. Bidder, the grandson of the ‘Calculating Boy’, a steam yacht was acquired. Since then the MBA has had a series of sea-going vessels, details of which are given elsewhere.
Since its opening the Plymouth Laboratory has encouraged its staff to collaborate with workers all over the world and has welcomed other research workers to work at the laboratory. Research by visiting workers at Plymouth has led to seven of them being awarded the Nobel Prize. From the early years the Laboratory ran training courses in marine biology and many eminent marine biologists started their studies at the well known ‘Easter Courses’.
From the beginning it was realised that, as the laboratory was so far from the main centres of learning, it was important that a comprehensive library was established and donations of books etc. were requested. Throughout its history the MBA has built up the library and, now known as the National Marine Biological Library, it is one of the most comprehensive in the field and certainly one of the friendliest and easy accessible libraries.
Originally the ground floor of the main building was a ‘tank room’ where specimens could be kept in running seawater. Later this area was turned into a public aquarium. When the National Marine Aquarium was built elsewhere in Plymouth, this area was turned into a teaching facility with a lecture room and a laboratory and this centre is now used for teaching courses, public lectures etc.
Information collated by Gerald T. Boalch.
With thanks to Alan J. Southward & Elizabeth K. Roberts