Birth of the Friday Harbor Laboratories

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The present-day Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL) on San Juan Island, which are special research facilities of the UW, have their origin in a summer session in marine studies held there in 1904. The session was organized by UW zoology professor Trevor Kincaid and Henry H. Hindshaw, curator of the State Museum. During that time, Kincaid and Hindshaw had been urging the UW to establish a marine station for the collection of laboratory and museum specimens.

[Old Station Building at Friday Harbor]
  Pictured at right: Old Station Building at Friday Harbor.
Inset: Main lab, Old Station Building, Friday Harbor.

Today, the Lab is a thriving center of excellence in research and education. "The intuition of these early workers has paid huge dividends for the scientists and students of the University, and others nationally and internationally who use FHL," notes Dennis Willows, current director of the Lab. "Typically, 1,500 persons from over 50 institutions in over 15 countries use FHL annually."footnote 1

Biological discoveries emerging from the efforts of scientists and students working at FHL are many. For example, the discoveries of the largest muscle cells (in barnacles) and nerve cells (in nudibranchssea slugs) in the animal kingdom have provided model systems that have been critically important in explaining how these cells work.

Furthermore, the discovery of a fluorescent protein in jellyfish (the molecules that make these creatures glow when touched) has provided an important tool in biology and medicine. The protein, called aequorin, is used widely now as a tool for detecting and measuring quantitatively the presence and action of minute quantities of calcium ion. That ion that is crucial in muscle contraction, cell division, egg fertilization, and other basic life processes.

More recently, a related protein from this same animal, the "Green Fluorescent Protein," has become one of the most exciting markers of gene activation in cell development and genetics studies, because its gene can be attached as a marker to other genes, thereby providing a fluorescent marker to tell scientists when the other genes are active in a cell.

The Lab has come a long way since its humble beginnings. During that first session in 1904, Kincaid and UW botanist Theodore C. Frye conducted the session in an informal, open-air setting. These two were "an eminent zoologist/botanist pair who knew animal and algal diversity when they saw it, and recognized the waters around the San Juan Islands as being extraordinarily rich and diverse with life forms," notes Willows.

The program was continued in subsequent years, and in 1906 it was moved to the site of an abandoned cannery in Friday Harbor. The cannery was sold in 1909, and a new home was sought for the station. In 1910, the funds and land to build a new facility were donated by Andrew Newhall, a prosperous ship captain. Later that year, the new Puget Sound Biological Station, as it was then called, opened with Kincaid as its first director.

"With courses in marine botany and marine zoology, students flocked to Friday Harbor to learn about nature in nature," writes UW science historian Keith Benson in a history of marine biology on the West Coast.footnote 2 The focus at that time was on instruction for undergraduate students and the preparation of secondary school teachers. Kincaid made use of the facility to prepare "specimen boxes" for Seattle's public schools. Emphasis soon grew on research for more advanced students. A research publication initiated by Frye in 1913 was one of the earliest research publications from a marine station in the U.S.footnote 1

In 1924, the Puget Sound Biological Station moved to a new facility across the harbor at Point Caution on a large piece of land obtained from the federal government by Frye. In 1930, the Station was reorganized under the new UW Oceanographic Laboratories, with UW chemistry professor Thomas G. Thompson as director.

"The Friday Harbor Laboratories are one of America's--indeed, the world's--oldest marine labs, after the ones at Naples, Plymouth in the U.K., Scripps, and Woods Hole," notes Willows. "The most important thing about FHL however, after the access it provides to biological diversity, is the base it provides for bright and inquisitive graduate students. The location and milieu seem to match well with the requirements of people who are in the exponential part of their learning curve when they are optimally curious and open-minded about solving exciting problems in science."

  1. Dennis Willows, personal communication. Information and assistance provided by Dr. Willows is gratefully acknowledged.
  2. "The Naturalist Confronts the Pacific: Marine Biology on the West Coast of North America, 1890-1930," Keith R. Benson, Department of Medical History and Ethics, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195.

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