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Anton Dohrn : biography

29 September 1840 - 26 September 1909

Felix Anton Dohrn (29 September 1840 – 26 September 1909) was a prominent German Darwinist and the founder and first director of the first zoological research station in the world, the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy.


The success of the Stazione Zoologica, and the new way of thinking and funding research are the main legacies of Dohrn. The model was copied a number of times throughout the world. In 1878 Johns Hopkins University founded the Chesapeake Zoological Laboratory, under the direction of W.K. Brooks. Then, in 1888, the Marine Biological Laboratory was founded at Woods Hole and in 1892 the first laboratory on the west coast, the Hopkins Marine Station, opened in California. In Britain, current marine laboratories that originate from this time include the Dunstaffnage Marine Station (today Scottish Association for Marine Science, 1884), the Gatty Marine Laboratory (University of St Andrews, 1884), the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (Plymouth, 1888), the Dove Marine Laboratory (Newcastle University, 1897), the Fisheries Research Services Marine Laboratory (Aberdeen, 1899), and the Bangor Marine Station (Queen's University of Belfast, 1903).

Dohrn's name has been immortalised in an undersea feature, the Anton Dohrn Seamount, a seamount in the Rockall Trough, to the north-west of the British Isles, which has become known for the great biodiversity which lives on the cold-water coral, Lophelia pertusa, in this region.

A motorboat owned by the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C. named Anton Dohrn in the early 20th century served in the United States Navy as the patrol vessel from 1917 to 1919.

Foundation of the Stazione Zoologica

In 1870 Dohrn decided that Naples would be a better place for his Station. This choice was due to the greater biological richness of the Gulf of Naples and also to the possibility of starting a research institute of international importance in a large university town that itself had a strong international element.

After a visiting a newly opened aquarium in Berlin, the Berliner Aquarium Unter den Linden he decided that charging the general public to visit an aquarium might earn the laboratory enough money to pay a salary for a permanent assistant. Naples, with a population of 500,000 inhabitants, was one of the largest and most attractive cities of Europe and also had a considerable flow of tourists (30,000 a year) that could potentially visit the aquarium.

Dohrn overcame the doubts of the city authorities and persuaded them to give him, free-of-charge, a plot of land at the sea edge, in the beautiful Villa Comunale on the condition that he promised to build the Stazione Zoologica at his own expense.

He opened the station to visiting scientists in September 1873, and to the general public in January 1874.

In 1875 Dohrn published Der Ursprung der Wirbelthiere und das Princip des Functionswechsels: Genealogische Skizzen which proposed the "turn over" theory of the origin of vertebrates.

Introduction to Darwinism

Anton Dohrn and other naturalists in [[Heligoland]]

His ideas changed in summer 1862 when he returned to study at Jena, where Ernst Haeckel introduced him to Darwin's work and theories. Dohrn became a fervent defender of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

At that time comparative embryology was the keystone of morphological evolutionary studies, based on Haeckel's recapitulation theory, the idea that an organism during its embryonic development passes through the major stages of the evolutionary past of its species. Morphology became one of the major ways in which zoologists sought to expand and develop Darwinian theory in the latter years of the 19th century. Dohrn chose to become a "Darwinian morphologist".

Dohrn received his doctorate in 1865 at Breslau under Eduard Grube, and his Habilitation in 1868 at Jena with Rudolf Virchow, Ernst Haeckel and Carl Gegenbaur. The study subjects were Medicine und Zoology and his Jena monograph was Studien zur Embryologie der Arthropoden. From 1868-1870 he was a Docent in zoology at Jena. During these times, he worked several times at facilities located by the sea: Heligoland alongside Haeckel in 1865, Hamburg in 1866, Millport, Scotland with David Robertson in 1867 and 1868 and moved to Messina, Italy, during the winter of 1868 together with his friend and colleague Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay to work on the marine life of the Straits of Messina. In 1870 Dohrn was called up to (briefly) serve in the Franco-Prussian War.

Living octopus

Living octopus

In countries which are located near sea coasts, sea food is an important part of national cuisine