Author: Ibon Cancio, UPV/EHU Associated Professor in Cell Biology; researcher in the ‘Cell Biology & Environmental Toxicology’ (CBET) research group of the Plentzia Marine Station (PiE-UPV/EHU); Spanish scientific representative in the EMBRC Committee of Nodes

Born in Canada on the 3rd of March 1841 (died on 16th March 1914), Sir John Murray returned to his parents’ homeland of Scotland in 1858 to live with his grandfather and finish his studies. In university, he rather unsuccessfully initiated medicine studies in Edinburgh, which was also the case for Darwin, but there he became a good friend of another unsuccessful student: Robert L. Stevenson, the acclaimed author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Although without conflicts between good and evil, there are some dichotomous aspects in Murray’s biography reminiscent of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. All of them positive. His academic life was one of perpetual conflict: a naturally free and adventurous spirit, he struggled to cope with scheduled lectures and exams. Consequently, he never graduated, but during his later successful scientific career, he was a strict defender of factual observation for the purpose of enhancing human knowledge. He was an explorer in research expeditions to dredge the ocean depths far and away, but he dedicated a good part of his life to research at, and administration of, ‘place-based’ marine stations. He was among the first scientists to understand the importance of international scientific collaboration but without forgetting to nurse a Scottish school of marine researchers. In the dichotomy of basic vs applied research he is one of the best examples of pragmatism showing the thin borders between both. He was a scientist and being one of the best in basic oceanographic research he made a fortune!

His unforgettable contribution to science was that of initiating, together with Charles Wyville Thomson, head of the HMS Challenger expedition, a whole new discipline: oceanography. He also established the importance of studying deep-sea deposits; as such, ocean dredging expeditions dominated marine research in Europe at the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries. Annoyed with university studies, Murray enrolled as a naturalist in a whaling ship to explore the Arctic in 1868, and with the experience gained, he was invited as a third naturalist to the Challenger expedition in 1872. The globe circumnavigating expedition covered 68,890 nautical miles, undertaking 492 deep-water soundings, 133 dredges, 151 open sea trawls, and 263 series of water temperature measurements between 1873 and 1876. Life was found at 5,500 m of depth, proving false the current thinking led by Edward Forbes that disregarded any possibility of life bellow 1,100 m. 

Challenger charts and image of John Murray
Part of the bathymetrical chart of the oceans after the Challenger expedition, surrounded by napkins commemorating Murray's legacy with some iconic species carrying his name such as Bathyraja murrayi and Melanocetus murrayi. Photo by Ibon Cancio.

After the Challenger expedition, Murray became first assistant for the monumental publication of the scientific results of the Challenger mission, and was later appointed editor in 1882 after Thomson's death. Murray was tasked with cataloguing the 4,717 new marine specimens which had been obtained. Murray turned the Challenger office in Edinburgh into a marine research hub where researchers worldwide, the internationally most-renowned experts (see table 1) in their particular animal taxa of interest, were invited to analyse the Challenger animal collections. Their contributions resulted in the publication of all the zoological monographies of the expedition. Very possibly, this was the first truly international, collaborative research programme. 

During his life, Murray would collaborate in many international activities that brought him different awards and honours abroad: in the USA, France, Sweden, and Prussia, for instance. Internationally, and as a member of the fishery board for Scotland (1896-1898), he participated in the first steps of the creation of the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) in 1902. Murray also financed and participated in the Norwegian expedition to the North Atlantic aboard the Michael Sars (North Atlantic Deep-Sea Expedition) in 1910. He additionally published research papers and books with scientists from Belgium (AF. Renard) and Norway (Johan Hjort), for example. Murray supported any possibility of scientific expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic. However, the international effort of the Challenger zoological series turned Murray towards a remarkable, ‘homeland-rooted’ research endeavour. After the fisheries exhibition in Edinburgh and aware of the need for Scottish scientists to train themselves in marine research at home, and knowing that marine scientific expeditions were not common due to their cost, Murray promoted the first marine station in UK: 'The Scottish Marine Station', which opened in 1883. This was the seed of the present-day 'Scottish Association of Marine Sciences (SAMS)', and it was located in Granton in the outskirts of Edinburgh. Murray was the first director of this institution, which originally consisted of a laboratory aboard a small barge called the ‘Ark’ (moored in a quarry), a steam yacht, and an abandoned tannery building to house aquaria, laboratories, a library and a museum for the display of specimen collections. 

John Murray tribute at SAMS
SAMS tribute to John Murray: the founder of oceanography and SAMS. Photo by Ibon Cancio.

Murray preferred the west coast of Scotland so after one year, the Ark was towed to Millport, where the marine station was established, and later moved to SAMS’ present-day location in Oban. Now SAMS is a word-leading institution in marine research and technology transfer, and member of EMBRC.

Aerial view of modern-day SAMS
Aerial view of modern-day SAMS. Photo provided by SAMS. 

Murray was an authority on ocean deposits. The voyage of the Challenger had convinced him that Darwin's theory of subsidence did not satisfactorily explain the formation of coral atolls and barrier reefs. He published his theories two years after his arrival with the Challenger, stressing the importance of the gradual deposit of the remains of marine creatures in the building-up of marine platforms. This would provide enough height for the growth of reef-building corals in more superficial waters in contact with sunlight. While cruising close to Java, the Challenger collected some samples formed by phosphate that seemed to originate from land. Pursuing deeper knowledge, Murray obtained samples from the HMS Egeria that harboured in Christmas Island in 1887. Some of the rocks sent to Murray were nearly pure phosphate originated from guano. The island was annexed to Great Britain in 1888, and a company (with Murray as president) developed a very successful phosphate mine there. Murray took pride in saying that Great Britain had made enough profit from the mine alone to cover all the costs of the Challenger expedition, its office, and report. Murray thus became rich (with his 'Treasure island') out of his basic oceanographic research, money that he would very often reinvest in science advancement. Basic feeds applied, and applied feeds basic!

John Murray was knighted in 1898, in recognition of his many contributions to marine research. As Stevenson said of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: 'In each of us, two natures are at war… All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are'. Sir Murray was instead at peace with his two selves, getting the best of both personalities. Adventure in exploration accompanied by scientific rigour, nurturing international collaborations, while promoting home-based schooling, creating opportunities for young researchers, and encouraging basic research that would bring technological developments. What a living lesson, born exactly 180 years ago, for modern marine biological stations in their missions in education, research and development, service provision and technology transfer.

John Murray bust at SZN in Italy
Some of the volumes of the Challenger report in the fresco room and below Darwin's bust at Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn (SZN) in Naples. Photo by Ibon Cancio.

Table 1. Taxon authorities participating in the publication of the zoological monographies within the Challenger report edited by Sir John Murray.


Taxon Authorities

Institution or organisation and country

Taxon studied

Alexander E. Agassiz 

University of Harvard (USA)


George J. Allman 

University of Edinburgh (UK)


Frank E. Beddard 

Universities of London and Oxford & naturalist in the Challenger expedition (UK)


Rudolph S. Bergh 

Hospital in Amaliegade, Copenhagen (Denmark)


George S. Brady

Hancock Museum, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK)

Copepods, Ostracods

Henry Bowman Brady 

British micropalaeontologist (UK)


George Busk 

Founder Greenwich Natural History Society (UK)


Philip Herbert Carpenter 

British naturalist (UK)


William B. Carpenter 

President of the Royal Medical Society (UK)


Thomas Davidson 

Vice-president of the Palaaontographical Society (UK)


Arthur Dendy

Universities of Manchester and Melbourne (UK)

Porifera: Monaxonida

Otto Finsch

Museum of Bremen & Humboldt Foundation (Germany)


William A. Forbes

University of Cambridge & Zoological Society of London (UK)


Ludwig von Graff 

University of Graz (Austro-Hungarian empire)


Albert Günther

Natural History Museum (UK)

Shore fishes

Ernst Haeckel

University of Jena (Germany)


William A. Herdman 

Universities of Edinburgh and Liverpool, Secretary of the Challenger Expedition Commission (UK)


Richard Hertwig 

Universities of Königsberg, Bonn, Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich (Germany)


Paulus P. C. Hoek

University of Leiden (The Netherlands)

Cirripedia, Pycnogonida

Albert von Kölliker

Uniiversity of Wurzburg (Germany)


Theodore Lyman

Federal fish commissioner (USA)


William C. McIntosh

Univ. Saint Andrews, (UK)


Henry Nottidge Moseley

Oxford University, Member of Challenger exp. (UK).


William Kitchen Parker

President of the Royal Microscopical Society (UK)

Green turtle

Nikolai Nikolaevich Poléjaeff


Porifera: Calcarea and Keratosa

Stuart O. Ridley 

British Museum (UK)

Porifera: Monaxonida

Tommaso Salvadori 

Vice-Director of the Royal Museum of Natural History in Turin (Italy)


Osbert Salvin 

University of Cambridge (UK)


Georg Ossian Sars 

University of Oslo (Norway)

Schizopoda, Cumacea

Franz Eilhard Schulze 

Universities of Rostock, Graz and Berlin. President of the German Zoological Society (Germany)

Porifera: Hexactinellida

Philip L. Sclater 

Secretary of the Zoological Society of London (UK)


Emil Selenka

Universities or Erlangen and Munich (Germany)


Edgar Albert Smith 

British Museum (UK)


William Johnson Sollas 

University College Bristol & Trinity College Dublin, President of Royal Geological Society, London (UK)

Porifera: Tetractinellida

Thomas Roscoe Rede Stebbing

Reverend and zoologist (UK)


Johan Hjalmar Théel

University of Uppsala & Swedish Museum of Natural History (Sweden)


William Turner

University of Edinburgh (UK)


Arthur Marquis of Tweeddale 

President of the Zoological Society of London (UK)


Morrison Watson 

University of Edinburgh (UK)


Francis Buchanan White 

Perth (Australia)


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