The Birth of Ocean Science in Rhode Island

Spring 2020


By Stephen Hale | Illustrations by H.A.Ogden, courtesy of Harvard University

Alexander Agassiz in 1896. Agassiz launched the first Rhode Island marine lab in 1877.
Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Comparative Zoology Archives, Harvard University

WHEN ALEXANDER AGASSIZ AND JOSEPH FIELD launched their Rhode Island marine laboratories in the late 1800s, they didn’t imagine that the fledgling labs, beset by rivalries, funding difficulties, and modest support from their institutions, would last only a few years. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm and accomplishments of these two people helped bring ocean science to the Ocean State.

The late 1800s to early 1900s was the Golden Age of American natural history, and Rhode Islanders enthusiastically joined in. Natural history societies flourished in Providence and Newport. Joseph Totten was one of the first to collect specimens from Narragansett Bay for science.

In the early 1830s, when not working his day job as the Army Corps of Engineers officer in charge of constructing Fort Adams in New-port, he satisfied his passion for “conchology” (the study of mollusk shells) by taking dredge samples from the bottom of Newport Harbor. He identified several species new to science, including the tiny amethyst gem clam (Gemma gemma). Later, he co-founded the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1855, Joseph Leidy,
a zoologist from the University of Pennsylvania, while on holiday visiting a friend in Narragansett, sampled the rocky shoreline and described several new species, including the polychaete worm (Naraganseta coralii).

Interest in establishing marine field stations swept through the United States during this period. The first ones were largely energized by the biologist Louis Agassiz, who had founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College (later Harvard University). In 1854, he added a marine lab to his summer cottage in Nahant, Massachusetts. In 1873, he established the Anderson School of Natural History on Penikese Island in Buzzards Bay for field collec-tions and laboratory work. The study of nature, not textbooks, was the mission.

After Louis Agassiz died at the end of 1873, his son Alexander took over the Penikese facility. However, the expense of running a school and lab on the island became insurmountable, and the trustees petitioned John Anderson—the wealthy merchant who had offered the island to Louis Agassiz and funded the first year—to move the facility to Woods Hole. Anderson declined and did not provide operating funds for the second year, whereupon Alexander covered the expenses.

Some of the instructors at Penikese went on to start other marine labs, including Alexander, who in 1875 added a laboratory room to his summer home at Castle Hill in Newport, Rhode Island, 23 miles from Penikese as the seagull flies. In 1877, he launched the Newport Marine Zoological Laboratory. Twenty years later, the second marine lab in Rhode Island was established by George Field of the Rhode Island College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (later the University of Rhode Island), when the college built a lab at Buttonwood Point on the west shore of Point Judith Pond, South Kingstown. Although neither of the two Rhode Island labs survived for long, they produced many seminal scientific publications and gave marine research in Rhode Island a strong initial boost.


Newport Marine Zoological Laboratory (1877–1910)

In 1877, Alexander Agassiz designed and had built at his own expense a separate marine laboratory on the grounds of his summer estate at Castle Hill (now the Castle Hill Inn). Driven by his desire to continue the legacy of his larger-than-life father, he wrote that he hoped to replace the work that might have been carried on at Penikese.

Agassiz earned his substantial wealth from developing and managing the largest copper mine in the world, the Calumet and Hecla mine in Michigan. Charles Kofold, in an article on Agassiz’s contributions to marine biology, wrote that Agassiz had a “singular pertinacity of purpose and continuity of effort.” Memorial biographies by Alfred Mayer and Henry Walcott noted that Agassiz had a quiet and reserved demeanor but was “a hercules of energy and executive power” and “a genius of activity” with a “remarkable ability as an organizer.”

Agassiz chose Newport in part because he wanted a rocky coast to collect specimens. In addition, cold waters from the north and warm Gulf Stream-influenced waters from the south led to a wide diversity of marine fauna. As one of the wealthiest individuals of his time, he might have found Gilded Age Newport society to be agreeable. But Agassiz devoted himself to science. Maud Elliott in “This Was My Newport” describes the intellectual culture that flourished in Newport at the time, represented by the Town and Country Club, and that is the substrate where Agassiz chose to settle. The club, organized by Julia Howe (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”), included many professors, authors, artists, and other luminaries, mainly from Boston. The club put on lectures, plays, and readings of poetry and literature. Agassiz hosted them at his laboratory with a lecture on fishes. Julia Howe wrote that the wit and nonsense of the club meetings made the gorgeous fetes given by those Gilded Age people who made luxurious living the main purpose of their lives seem dull.

Agassiz and assistants examine specimens at the Newport Marine Zoological Laboratory.

Agassiz described the Newport laboratory in a report he sent to the scientific journal Nature in 1879.

“Newport Island and the neighboring shores form the only rocky district in the long stretch of sandy beaches extending southward from Cape Cod—an oasis, as it were, for the abundant development of marine life along its shores.”

The well-appointed lab had workbenches for sorting, dissection, microscopic work, and illustration. An innovative Agassiz design was placing the microscope tables on top of brick piers and arches independent of the main building so that people walking over the wooden floors of the lab would not disturb the people looking through microscopes.

A windmill (later a 5-horsepower steam pump) brought in seawater, freshwater, and compressed air piped to the workbenches. A small cove behind the lab formed a natural boat harbor. Researchers collected specimens from a steam launch with pelagic nets and bottom dredges.

That Agassiz would embark on such a remarkable enterprise was driven in part by the 1873 death of his revered father, Louis, followed by Alexander’s beloved wife, Anna, who caught pneumonia caring for her father-in-law and died eight days later. This hard blow left disconsolate a man previously described by
Sir John Murray—when Agassiz visited the HMS Challenger expedition during a port call in Halifax— as filled with the “overflowing joy of life.” Agassiz never remarried but resolutely threw himself into his scientific work.

“Proximity to seacoast renders possible the study under natural conditions …”

At the lab, Agassiz worked mainly on taxonomy, embryology, and early development of jellyfishes, sea urchins, starfish, polychaete worms, and fishes. He invited graduate students and instructors from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology to study at the lab. For 20 years, Newport was an active center of marine research.

One student, W.E. Castle, in a Science article in 1893, described the summer activities of the lab as “a very paradise for the marine zoologist.” He wrote,

“Any day through the summer you may see half a dozen men here industriously bending over their microscopes, studying animals in their living form or preserving material for future study.”

The students stayed at a boarding house in town and were taken to the lab each day. Beyond these happy summer days at Newport, tensions were developing at the museum in Cambridge between Agassiz and E.L. Mark, who became the museum’s director of the embryological laboratory. Mark favored instruction, while Agassiz favored advanced research. While Agassiz generously invited others to study at the Newport lab, the fact that it was part of his private summer estate sometimes created difficulties. Mary Windsor in her history of the museum noted that Agassiz in 1892 proposed that Harvard expand the Newport facility with a second laboratory building, a dormitory, a large seagoing launch, an aquarium, and a 200-ft research steamer.

He promised to leave the lab to Harvard in his will. Although the Newport lab had been a significant part of science at Harvard for years, Harvard did not accept the offer, perhaps influenced by Charles Whitman, director of marine biological laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole (and a former assistant of Agassiz at Newport), who wrote of “rival schemes” and advocated for the superiority of strong central stations over many weak ones. Agassiz was livid. Agassiz and his assistants and advanced students at the Newport lab published numerous scientific articles, and several people who studied there became well known throughout the scientific world. Agassiz hosted grad students at the lab through 1897. He stopped inviting them in 1898, disappointed by the lukewarm interest of Harvard in his proposal to expand the facility. He used the lab by himself until his death in 1910. 

The estate stayed in the family until 1938 and served as an informal Navy base and officer’s quarters during World War II. Now, the laboratory building is used by the Castle Hill Inn as a charming conference room. The Biological Laboratory at Point Judith Pond

In 1897, the Rhode Island College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (later the University of Rhode Island) built a marine lab at Buttonwood Point, on the west side of Point Judith Pond in South Kingstown, just north of the YMCA’s Camp Fuller. In their article on the lab, C.L. Devlin and P.J. Capelotti wrote that Rhode Island was the first state land-grant college to establish a marine lab. Land-grant colleges at their beginning focused on agriculture, with little attention to fisheries. The college had hired in 1896—from Brown University, where he was a professor of cellular biology—George Field as an associate professor at the Rhode Island Agricultural Experiment Station. Field quickly got the Buttonwood Point marine lab operating in 1897. The next year, the college catalog promoted marine studies:

“Proximity to seacoast renders possible the study under natural conditions, as well as in aquaria, of the habits and development [of] many marine animals …. ”

The building had laboratory benches to accommodate four to six investigators and large windows to accommodate dissection and microscopy. Field ordered a skiff equipped with a dredge, oyster tongs, and nets. In an 1898 article in The American Naturalist, Field described the Planktonokrit—one of the more notable devices he helped design—a 400-lb metal centrifuge powered by a steam engine that he used to measure the volume of plankton in a water sample. While many marine labs at that time focused on taxonomy and species life history, Field and his assistants also conducted research on physical, chemical, and geological factors that influenced marine life. He measured seasonal variations in water temperature and levels of dissolved oxygen in the pond using the new Winkler titration method. He studied the life cycles of bivalves, methods of attachment of spat, methods to prevent sedimentation of shellfish beds, and effects of food availability and oxygen on plankton. In his 1896 report “The Oysters in the Point Judith Pond,” Field identified two potential causes of a decline of the pond’s main fisheries (oysters, white perch, her-ring, eel, flatfish, smelts): storms periodically filling in the natural breach to the sea, and sedimentation and pollution from sewage and textile mills in Peace Dale and Wakefield on the Saugatucket River. Field wrote that periodic closures of the opening to the sea blocked fish movement in and out of the pond, increased sedimentation that smothered shellfish and made the bot-tom unsuitable for the settlement of spat, and led to increased growth of seaweed. He said that it would be sad if an area so valuable as Point Judith Pond should be allowed to be transformed from “a beautiful sheet of water to a miasmatic bog-hold.” He began to argue for the construction of a permanent breachway.




Although women in the late-1800s America didn’t enjoy equal status with men in many areas, they were well represented at the early marine schools/labs. One-third of the students at the Anderson School of Natural History on Penikese Island were women, as were three of the six students that Alexander Agassiz invited to the first year of the Newport lab. This was partly in fulfillment of a promise the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology had made that it would serve Massachusetts by reaching out to schoolteachers. The Agassizes’ enlightened attitude toward women’s education was no doubt influenced by Louis’ wife Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, who contributed to the founding of the coeducational Anderson School and who later became the first president of Radcliffe College.


At meetings of the Town and Country Club in Newport, Alexander met Julia Ward Howe, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement. Another member of the club was Colonel Thomas Higginson, a strong advocate for women’s rights.

Joan Burstyn, in her article on the influence of the Penikese summer sessions, wrote that the 30 women who studied at Penikese later played a significant role in U.S. women’s education. The Woman’s Education Association of Boston, founded in 1871 to “promote the industrial, intellectual, aesthetic, moral, and physical education of women,” provided funds to launch the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole; women comprised nearly half the students at the first summer session.

Another interest of Field’s was the potential of the pond for aquaculture. In his 1892 article “The Problem of Marine Biology” in The American Naturalist, he foresaw a time when marine fisheries would become depleted by a growing human population and pollution. He passionately advocated for aquaculture, arguing that “the economic results of intelligent and successful oyster culture, always bountiful, are frequently marvelous.”

He wrote that Rhode Island, with its warm, shallow, protected bays and brackish ponds teeming with plankton, was an ideal spot for aquaculture. However, aquaculture was not well-received by the local fishermen, who discouraged several attempts to establish shellfish beds. Eight bushels of scallops laid down in beds went missing, presumably found by what Field called “appreciative fishermen.”

Walter Wilson in his biography of Field notes that colleagues described Field as a “pleasant, quiet, scholarly type” and a warm, fun-loving person. However, in promoting marine aquaculture, Field sometimes lacked political savvy. He wrote in one of the Agricultural Experiment Station’s annual reports that “Farming land of wonderful fertility, or vast mineral resources, are not here [in Rhode Island].”

That could not have gone over well with the main users of the station’s research. Field became discouraged by the lack of support for a permanent breachway and aquaculture for the pond. In the summer of 1899, he taught a summer course on echinoderms at MBL and conducted research at the adjacent U.S. Fish Commission lab. In July, he resigned from his position in Rhode Island.

Late in 1899, the college ordered the disposal of the marine lab at Buttonwood Point and dismantled it in 1900. (Had it survived that, it likely would have disappeared when the 1938 hurricane swept Buttonwood Point clean.) Although the lab lasted only three years, Field established a precedent that other state colleges would follow, including Rhode Island itself 37 years later. Wilson wrote that although Field was “to some extent an unrealistic visionary,” many of Field’s ideas, such as those in aquaculture, pollution control, and over-harvesting, are being implemented today. 

The settling, death, and reincarnation of the spat Like many oyster spat that, after drifting in the plankton, find a favorable substrate on which to settle, but then do not survive due to predation and competition, the two early Rhode Island marine labs did not endure. Basically, Rhode Island lost to Woods Hole both the Newport lab and the Buttonwood Point lab. Ironically, Agassiz’s Newport lab may never have existed had John Anderson agreed to move the Penikese facility to Woods Hole in 1874.

Both the early Rhode Island marine labs were essentially one-person operations without sufficient support from their institutions. Although marine research in the state faltered in the last two years of the century, a glimmer of the future emerged in 1898 when the Rhode Island Commissioners of Inland Fisheries established a pioneering lobster hatchery and experiment station on a floating barge in Wickford Harbor. This later became a marine fisheries field station. And the state made a glorious recovery in 1936 with the founding of URI’s Narragansett Marine Laboratory (now the Graduate School of Oceanography).

Agassiz’s Newport lab may never have existed had John Anderson agreed to move the Penikese facility to Woods Hole in 1874. Both the early Rhode Island marine labs were essentially one-person operations without sufficient support from their institutions.

Although marine research in the state faltered in the last two years of the century, a glimmer of the future emerged in 1898 when the Rhode Island Commissioners of Inland Fisheries established a pioneering lobster hatchery and experiment station on a floating barge in Wickford Harbor. This later became a marine fisheries field station. And the state made a glorious recovery in 1936 with the founding of URI’s Narragansett Marine Laboratory (now the Graduate School of Oceanography).

Both Agassiz and Field recognized Rhode Island as a fruitful place to conduct marine studies. Both men realized that to understand marine life, one also needed an understanding of physical, chemical, and geological conditions. Agassiz was more interested in exploration and pure research, while much of Field’s career dealt with applied research. Whereas Agassiz was recognized as one of the most prominent marine scientists of his day, both in the U.S. and around the world, Field seems to have gotten little attention.

Agassiz published numerous articles in scientific journals and books, while Field had few. But Wilson suggested that Field’s experiences in applied research and management enabled him to become one of the most important prophets for conservation at a time when few in America were paying the topic much attention.

Both men were ahead of their time.

Today, an ocean-going research vessel, the 185-ft R/V Endeavor operated by the Graduate School of Oceanography, has fulfilled Agassiz’s 1892 proposal to Harvard to acquire a 200-ft ocean-going vessel for his lab in Rhode Island.

There is a permanent breachway to Point Judith Pond. Aquaculture is a booming business. And the need for conservation is widely recognized. In a reprise of Field’s lab, URI returned to Point Judith Pond in 1968 when it set up the Marine Experiment Station near the breachway at the southern end of the pond, in the village of Jerusalem, about 2.5 miles south of Buttonwood Point. In short, the visions of both men for marine research in Rhode Island have been amply realized.

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