UW News

July 8, 2004

A century of excellence: Friday Harbor Labs to celebrate 100 years

News and Information

Judging by how well his investment has performed for the University of Washington in the last 100 years, one could argue that Trevor Kincaid might have done well on Wall Street.

In 1903, with $250 to spend, Kincaid, accompanied by H.R. Foster, set out in a small boat in the San Juan Islands to find a good spot for a marine biology research station. They chose a spot at Friday Harbor, and the first classes were held there the following year. (Kincaid, an 1899 UW graduate, had joined the faculty shortly after the zoology department was established, and the building that now houses the Biology Department bears his name. A history of the zoology department prepared in 1936 lists some 47 plants and animals named after him.)

In the last hundred years Friday Harbor Laboratories have occupied three different sites in the San Juans, including the current 484-acre location at Point Caution, where the labs have been since 1923. The facility, which comprises nine research labs and has more than 1,500 acres of biological preserves in the San Juans, has hosted prominent scientists from all over the world and provided education for thousands of students. It has become a beacon for environmental research.

Early in the 20th century, George Hitchings, a young scientist from the Olympic Peninsula, got his initial research training and published his first scientific paper while studying at Friday Harbor. That led to a career of pioneering work with the Burroughs Wellcome Co. on compounds to combat cancer cells. He won a Nobel Prize for that work in 1988.

That is just the most prominent example of a century-long legacy of cutting-edge research, which now includes the National Institutes of Health-sponsored National Center of Excellence in Cell Dynamics.

A celebration of the labs’ centennial began last year and will continue into next year. But on July 17, top UW officials including new President Mark Emmert, outgoing President Lee Huntsman, Board of Regents Chairman Gerald Grinstein as well as a number of political leaders and a variety of other dignitaries will gather at the labs to formally commemorate the 100th anniversary.

Keynote speakers include:

  • UW regent William H. Gates Sr., a Seattle attorney for whom the new UW law school is named.
  • Seattle attorney William Ruckelshaus, a former two-time head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, a former deputy U.S. attorney general and a former acting director of the FBI.
  • A.O. Dennis Willows, who is ending his tenure as the labs’ sixth director, a position he has held since 1972.

The labs have played several key roles in helping the UW maintain its position as a leading research institution, Willows said. For instance, the labs produce important new knowledge in marine science fields. They also provide research training for students at all levels, and they draw many students and faculty from diverse institutions and countries who come to work on the exceptional marine organisms found in the waters of the San Juan Islands.

Research at Friday Harbor might have originally focused on marine sciences, but today it also includes such varied things as the contraction of muscle cells and their movement through the body, and studying when and how the earliest life on Earth evolved. The work has contributed to sciences such as oceanography and cell, marine and conservation biology, as well as to biomedical research.

Among the current leading research areas, Willows said, are means of encouraging the recovery of marine populations hit hard by overharvesting and environmental damage, and the development of implantable microcomputers that can replace damaged brain and spinal cord circuitry in humans.

He notes that researchers who have relied on organisms and research facilities provided by Friday Harbor Labs include the winners of at least a dozen major science awards, including Hitchings’ Nobel Prize.

“The top achievements have been the people whose lives have been changed by scientific discovery,” he said.

Craig Hogan, vice provost for research, sees Friday Harbor labs as a convergence between a unique natural environment and the most advanced biological research techniques, and between scientists throughout the UW and from many parts of the world, ranging from undergraduate students to world-famous researchers.

“This rich mix creates an exciting intellectual outpost with connections to many campus departments,” Hogan said. “It combines a rich tradition in marine science and ecology with new work in fundamental biology and computational biology. In the future, there will be even more year-round activity and participation by visitors from the larger international science community.”

Clearly, after a century Friday Harbor Labs continue to grow in stature. And it has proven to be quite a bargain for the UW, especially considering that, from the original $250 available to invest, Kincaid returned $125 to the university.