Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 251–265 | Cite as

Proximity to seacoast: G. W. Field and the marine laboratory at Point Judith Pond, Rhode Island, 1896–1900

  • C. Leah Devlin
  • P. J. Capelotti


By the time George Wilton Field concluded his work at the marine laboratory his initial scientific concerns had forced him directly into local politics. He pleaded with little success with the community of South Kingstown, and with no success with the town of Narragansett, to create and maintain a permanent breach:

Is it not possible for the acute business sense and the broad philanthropy of the community to sweep aside petty, local, and personal jealousies which are now blocking practical progress for the establishment of a permanent breach at Point Judith Pond? It is truly criminal neglect which permits fifteen hundred acres of valuable water-farming area to lie practically idle and rapidly deteriorate with each passing year.... In the opinion of the writer the Point Judith Pond and those of similar type could be made the seat of oyster, clam, crab, herring, white perch, and striped bass fisheries.30

In the summer of 1899 Field was invited to teach a summer course on echinoderms at the MBL in Woods Hole, and to conduct summer research in a laboratory of the U.S. Fish Commission, also located at Woods Hole. When the summer was over, he remained there. Whether he had intentions of returning to resume his position in Rhode Island is unclear. At this point all correspondence with the Agricultural Experiment Station ceases, and Field's last report is a brief statement in the annual report of the experiment station for 1900 wherein he laments the variety of experiments he has not been able to carry to conclusion, such as a study of the artificial fertilization of water analogous to the method of chemically fertilizing the land for crops.

The correspondence reveals that the enthusiasm Field brought to Point Judith Pond in 1896 was gradually sapped by his own fragile health, by three years' exposure to the local politics surrounding the southern Rhode Island fishing industry, and by a college administration determined to remove the stench of his invertebrates. He sought a refuge in the sheltered world of pure research at the U.S. Fish Commission Laboratory, where he set out to investigate the “Origin of Sex” using, as his animal models, squid and toadfish.

On November 14, 1899, the Board of Managers of the college ordered the director of the experiment station to dispose of the marine laboratory at Point Judith Pond.31 How long the laboratory at Buttonwood Point survived in the institutional memory of the University of Rhode Island is open to question. The current Graduate School of Oceanography, in the event, traces its history back to 1937, not 1896.

Nevertheless, Field and his one-room marine station established a precedent of land-grant marine research that other state colleges would follow, including Rhode Island itself, which reestablished its marine station, this time permanently, at South Ferry in 1937. In his brief research career in Rhode Island, George Wilton Field had discovered the same coastal attributes that would lead later to the creation of one of the world's major marine research centers at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography.

And, in a measure of triumph for his work, little more than a year after Field left for Woods Hole and his laboratory was dismantled, the town of South Kingstown voted the funds necessary to begin the construction of a permanent breachway.32 Whether Field's scientific reasoning and the conclusions of his marine research played any part in finally deciding the thirty-year-old debate in the affirmative will probably never be known. What is evident is that Field had no patience for those who could not see the results of his research as clearly as he could himself.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. Leah Devlin
    • 1
  • P. J. Capelotti
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of BiologyPennsylvania State UniversityAbingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyRutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA

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