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
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.
Baird'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 worlds 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 Centers Woods Hole facility (located on the old
Commission lab site) includes NMFSs 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 Womens 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
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 U.S. Geological Survey
In 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
Earths crustal structure beneath the continental margins. These programs provide an
understanding of the nations energy and mineral resources, assess the geologic hazards
within offshore areas, and document problems that bear on the proper management of
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
Since 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 nations 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.
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.