Woods Hole Scientific Community

Marine Biological Laboratory diamond MBL/WHOI Library diamond National Marine Fisheries Service diamond Sea Education Association diamond US Geological Survey diamond Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution diamond Woods Hole Research Center
'More than the ordinary share of world-class scientists visit this small coastal village.'
In most parts of the United States, a ride down the center of a peninsula brings the driver to a village, often described as "sleepy," usually hosting a store for provisions, a small Post Office, accommodations for tourists, and a dock for fishing boats.

Photo of Woods Hole The end of the ride down the Woods Hole Road out of downtown Falmouth brings one to what, at first, looks like a picture-postcard New England village, a small harbor on one side, a small library and an historical association museum on the other. But around the curve in the road, the scene is very different.

Here the visitor enters a unique science enclave, a collection of laboratories and docks, three and four-story brick or stone buildings and small wooden houses, all housing the people and the paraphernalia of ocean science. Particularly in the summer time, the village bustles with activity: scientists moving from building to dock and back, tourists gaping at exhibits or oohing and aahing as the Aquarium's seals are fed, Coast Guard ships, ferries, research vessels, and private yachts departing and arriving from the nearby islands and from the far reaches of the world.

Like an iceberg, only a small number of the 60 structures housing the science community are visible to the visitor. To preserve the village character, many activities are squeezed into the small historic buildings or tucked into the woods along the Woods Hole Road.

Three government organizations have branches in Woods Hole village: the US Coast Guard, the US Geological Survey, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Three nationally recognized private research institutions, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Marine Biological Laboratory, and the Woods Hole Research Center, the ocean-education organization Sea Education Association, and a collection of other private organizations concerned with education and the environment make the village and its docks their home base. Much of the research is collaborative among the scientists at the public and private organizations. Some of the facilities are shared, such as the joint Marine Biological Laboratory/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution science library.

Woods Hole village owes its unique character to the actual Woods Hole, a natural deep-water passage just off the peninsula, and to the harbor, generally ice-free in winter, sheltered in summer, and deep. Its history began, like so many other peninsula tips, as a fishing village, beginning with the Native Americans who were fishing from its shores when the Europeans arrived in the early 1600s.

From the founding of Falmouth (then called Succanesset) in the 1660s to the present, the Woods Hole village has provided an economic base for the town. Access to the sea has meant a source of food, a method of transportation, and the basis of manufacturing. In the early days, sea breezes powered both a grist mill and many saltworks along the shores of Buzzards Bay. In the early 1800s, whaling ships were constructed in Woods Hole village, and whalers left the port for the far Pacific. The US Coast Guard, established in 1789 as the Light House Service, arrived in the 1820s with the construction of Tarpaulin Cove and Nobska light houses. In the mid 1800s, the construction of one of the world's first commercial fertilizer plants, the Pacific Guano Company, brought the railroad to the Woods Hole village. (For more information about Woods Hole's history, read "Woods Hole Reflections," a collection of essays edited by Mary Lou Smith.)

Even though the Pacific Guano Company failed in the late 1800s, Woods Hole continued to flourish as it was, even then, on its way to becoming the scientific center it is today. In the mid 1800s, amateur and professional naturalists began spending their summers in the Woods Hole area, studying the many fish species in local waters. Over the next 80 years, two other government agencies would establish branches in Woods Hole to conduct research and two nationally recognized, large research institutions would be founded with private funds.

The National Marine Fisheries Service

Driven by economic concerns, in 1871 Congress created the US Commission of Fish and Fisheries to investigate and make recommendations concerning the declining fish stocks. Congress appointed as Commissioner of Fisheries Spencer F. Baird, then Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Baird had been an early summer visitor to Woods Hole where he pursued his interest in natural science. No doubt, the easy access created by the railroad combined with the natural attractions of the area, including the availability of both warm and cold water fishes, prompted the decision to establish a summer sampling station in Woods Hole.

Child at Aquariumblank spaceBaird's personal interests were those of basic research, but his knowledge of fish and their spawning patterns was applied to developing solutions to the problem of declining fish stocks. A permanent laboratory was opened in 1875 with the support of the government and private citizens.

Today the Commission (the world's oldest fisheries research program) has become the Northeast Fisheries Science Center of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US Department of Commerce. The Center includes seven laboratories scattered from Massachusetts to Virginia and conducts research in support of commercial fisheries in US waters off the northeastern United States. The Center's Woods Hole facility (located on the old Commission lab site) includes NMFS's only public aquarium, which is open to the public year-round. The NMFS employs about 180 people at the Woods Hole lab, and has an annual budget of approximately $13 million.

The Marine Biological Laboratory

Coincident with the establishment of the Fisheries' summer collecting station and its applied research, natural scientists from many of the nation's universities traveled to Woods Hole and to the nearby islands for summer study. Harvard's famed naturalist Louis Agassiz ran the "first seaside school of natural history" on one of the Elizabeth Islands in 1873 and 1874.

Agassiz passed his mandate: "Study nature, not books," on to his students, one of whom, Alpheus Hyatt, was curator of the Boston Society of Natural History. Hyatt joined with the Women's Education Association of Boston and other interested groups to raise $10,000 to found a permanent laboratory for the study of marine science. By March 1888, the group had incorporated the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and selected Woods Hole as its site. This new laboratory would be governed by scientists, and its focus would be basic research and education with economic interests having a much lower priority. The acquisition of land and construction of buildings was supported primarily by private citizens, most notably another Woods Hole summer resident, Joseph S. Fay.

MBL Candle House During its history, the MBL has attracted a number of Nobel prize-winning biologists and other notable scientists to its facilities. Here they study basic biological processes, using the relatively simple biological systems that exist in sea creatures as models for other animals. Until the 1970s, the MBL was primarily a summer institution; it now includes several year-round programs in a variety of biological disciplines.

The Marine Biological Laboratory now employs about 200 people year-round with another 800 scientists and students coming to the Village each summer for research and study. Its annual budget is approximately $15 million.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

In the late 1920s, the National Academy of Sciences charged a Committee on Oceanography "to consider the share of the United States of America in a worldwide program of oceanographic research." The committee's report included a recommendation to establish an independent research institution on the east coast, one committed to a comprehensive study of the ocean.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was founded in 1930 with the secretary of that same Committee on Oceanography, Henry Bryant Bigelow, a Harvard professor, as its director and with the former director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Frank L. Lillie, as its first president of the corporation.

WHOI Bigelow Labblank spaceA $3-million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation supported the construction of a laboratory (now the Bigelow Building) on Water Street and a research vessel, the ketch ATLANTIS, and established an endowment for operations.

Today the Oceanographic is a private, non-profit corporation with almost 850 year-round employees, making it the second largest employer on Cape Cod. Its research staff includes biologists, chemists, economists, engineers, geologists, mathematicians, and physicists. Its annual budget of approximately $85 million is derived primarily from government agencies that support the individual scientists' research in a peer-reviewed application process.

WHOI's facilities are located in the village and on a 190-acre campus 1.5 miles away on Woods Hole Road. WHOI has three ocean-going research ships, the 279-foot KNORR, the 274-foot ATLANTIS, and the 177-foot OCEANUS, but they are seldom seen at the dock -- they are usually at work in the world oceans.

The U.S. Geological Survey

USGS logoIn 1962 another field office of the United States government came to Woods Hole to conduct research: the United States Geological Survey (USGS), part of the US Department of the Interior. From its beginning, the geologists at the USGS office have carried out collaborative research projects with the scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Marine Biological Laboratory, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The USGS conducts a wide range of geological and geophysical research and mapping investigations of the submerged continental margins of the United States and worldwide. Its scientific programs focus on the geology and processes along coastal areas; the bottom and shallow sub-bottom geology of the US Exclusive Economic Zone; and Earth's crustal structure beneath the continental margins. These programs provide an understanding of the nation's energy and mineral resources, assess the geologic hazards within offshore areas, and document problems that bear on the proper management of coastal areas.

In 1974 the field office in Woods Hole became the headquarters for the Coastal and Marine Geology Field Center. It employs approximately 100 people and has an annual budget of approximately $10 million.

The Sea Education Association

SEA logoblank spaceSince 1975, the Sea Education Association (SEA) has offered additional education experiences in Woods Hole and on board its sailing research vessels, the 125-foot staysail schooner WESTWARD and the 134-foot brigantine CORWITH CRAMER. Undergraduate students from the nation's best colleges and universities study on shore and then go to sea in a 12-week, full-credit, deep-water research and education program. SEA also runs seminar programs for high school students, teachers, Elderhostel, and groups from other educational organizations.

The Woods Hole Research Center

The Woods Hole Research Center was founded in 1975 by Dr. George M. Woodwell to address the great issues of environment through scientific research and education and through applications of science in public affairs. WHRC logo

Climate change and the warming of the earth are at the core of the Center's Science Program, and the Center specializes in global forests because of their controlling influence on climate. The Center maintains continuing research projects in the tropical rainforest of Brazil, in the boreal forest of Siberia -- the largest forested region on earth -- and in the forests of our own New England.

The Center's Public Affairs Program works in the international arena to foster agreement on ways to safeguard the health of the planet. The treaty on climate change, now ratified by over 160 nations, was drafted by Center staff. The Center is also involved in the implementation of the treaty on biodiversity. The World Commission on Forests, established in 1995 through the Center's initiative, is defining ways of defending global forests as a public trust.

The Center's Education Program involves training the coming leaders of environmental science in Brazil and Russia, and post-doctoral research by American scholars.

The Marine Instrumentation Industry

The commercial tradition of Woods Hole Village, established by the whaling shipyard and the fertilizer factory, continues today in a collection of small companies that produce instruments and electronics for marine research and monitoring.

A great many of the instruments designed to take measurements in the ocean have been developed by scientists and engineers working at the Oceanographic and at other village research facilities. However, because these organizations are not manufacturers, whenever a quantity of instruments is needed, the concept is licensed to a local firm.

Some marine electronics companies grew up in WHOI engineers' garages; others moved to the region to take advantage of the interaction with village scientists and engineers. A 1990 national study concluded that the Boston/Cape Cod area has the largest concentration of marine instrumentation companies in the United States. And almost half of those companies are within a 45-minute drive of Woods Hole village.

Perhaps the most successful example of a "spin-off" company is one based on biotechnology, Associates of Cape Cod. It was founded by Stanley Watson, a WHOI biologist who developed the use of a substance derived from horseshoe crab blood to detect the presence of the bacteria that cause toxic shock in drugs and blood products. Associates of Cape Cod moved to a manufacturing facility in downtown Falmouth and has expanded into other products.

Visitors to the Region

In addition to the students and the hundreds of scientists who visit the region to work with their colleagues on common problems of marine science, the Woods Hole village itself attracts many thousands of tourists who can visit the Oceanographic's Exhibit Center, the NMFS Aquarium, the Marine Biological Laboratory, and the Woods Hole Historical Society museum.

In addition, this end-of-the-peninsula village supports a large collection of shops, restaurants, and bookstores, banks, and other services for the visitors who arrive by car, bike, and boat, and for the village residents and science community. Even in the middle of a winter snow storm, when the residents of most villages are tucked into their snug houses and fishing boats are moored in safe harbors, the bustle of the science community keeps the Woods Hole village from becoming another "sleepy" New England village.

Last revised: 12 September 1997
Photos and text copyright(c) copyright symbol Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.


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