The Marine Biological Association

Promoting marine scientific excellence and representing the marine biological community since 1884

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A Brief History of the MBA

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. At that meeting, Professor T.H. Huxley was elected President and Professor E. Ray Lankester the Secretary. The two men’s opinions diverged on the question of over-fishing: 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 and thought that fish might be a finite resource.

The Association consisted, and still does, of fee-paying members who are entitled to a number of benefits, including  access to the library and use of space at the Laboratory for one week a year. The Association is governed by a Council, constituted of elected members, Vice-Presidents and representative from a number of founding institutions (learned societies and universities who helped found the MBA). The President is elected by the Council who also appoint the Director and permanent members of staff. (For more on governance of the MBA, please see here.)

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 Stazione Zoologica in Naples, consisted of two three-story blocks linked by a two-story building.

The ground floor of the main building was a ‘tank room’ where specimens could be kept in running seawater. From the beginning, these tank rooms were open to the public: this was so popular that the MBA soon converted the into a fully-fledged public aquarium which was to remain open until 1998 (when the National Marine Aquarium was built in the Coxside area of Plymouth).

Throughout the years, the Laboratory has had many additions: a third mansard story was added to the central section of the main building, wings and outbuildings were built behind the main section, and a major expansion to house the library was completed added.

When the building of the Laboratory began, it was acknowledged that the MBA would need to run its own library to ensure it had access to the most relevant literature. Thus, various requests for donations and public appeals were made (see here for a description of the library and the Director’s appeal in 1889). Since the, then MBA library has continued to grow and developed its knowledge exchange activities, becoming recognized as the National Marine Biological Library, in 1996. Today, it remains one of the most comprehensive in its field.

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.

The MBA has almost always had its own sea-going vessel. This first of these was chartered in 1899 and 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. Vessels have included the Busy Bee, the Anton Dohrn, the Oithana, the Huxley. In addition, eminent members of the MBA often loaned their personal vessels to help carry out research: G. P. Bidder helped the MBA purchase the Huxley in 1901, and Lord Moyne made his personal yacht available for research cruises. Details of the MBA’s current research vessels can be found here.

Since its opening the Plymouth Laboratory has encouraged its staff to collaborate with workers all over the world and has welcomed researchers to make use of the facilities at the laboratory. This so-called “bench system”, which had been put in place by Anton Dohrn at the station in Naples and adopted by the MBA, is still in place and is very conducive to high-level research exchanges. In fact, no fewer than 12 Nobel laureates have conducted work at the MBA, several of them carrying out their seminal work at the Laboratory. (For more information about the Nobel laureates associated with the MBA, please see here.)

Alongside it’s research role, the MBA has always invested in education. From 1896, it ran the Easter Classes which instigated by Prof. Walter Garstang and open to university students. These courses were of a high scientific level, and during the course, students would be expected to carry out much fieldwork and laboratory work. The courses also had a social element, and staff and students would often write amusing scientific poems about their research, examples of which can be found here. The last Easter Class ran in 1973.

More information and resources about the MBA’s history is available on the MBA Collections website here.

This information is taken from an article my Alan J. Southward & Elizabeth K. Roberts published on the occation of the MBA centenary in 1984. The complete publication can be downloaded here here.

Recent events

Royal Charter

The Marine Biological Association was granted a Royal Charter from Her Majesty the Queen in 2013.  The  Royal Charter was granted in recognition of the MBA’s long and eminent history and its status within the field of marine biology.

125 years of the Citadel Hill Laboratory

In 2013, the MBA celebrated the 125 years since the inauguration of its Plymouth Laboratory; for more information, please see here.

125 years of the Association

2009 saw the Marine Biological Association 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 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.

The main celebration event was held in London, September 24th 2009 “The Marine Biological Association: Celebrating 125 years of excellence in research and education” at the Fishmongers’ Hall in London. The event marked the MBA’s history and achievements with a day of keynote presentations and other talks that highlight the importance of marine science for modern society. Speakers included Professor Sir Tim Hunt and Sir Crispin Tickell. The talks were followed by an evening reception. For a full programme of the events, please see here.