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

Felix Anton Dohrn (29 September 1840 – 26 September 1909) was born in Stettin Prussian Province of Pomerania (now Szczecin, in Poland) within a wealthy family that had made its fortune trading wine, spices and sugar. He was a zoologist and evolutionist, yes! However, and above all, he was a professional science and research infrastructure manager, an internationally focused catalyser of scientific progress and a visionary of research service provision. His 19th century management approach has been somehow revisited in the ‘European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures’ (ESFRI), which established its first roadmap in 2006, and in the research infrastructures that have resulted from that roadmap, one of them being EMBRC. Research possibilities (know-how, skills, equipment, work environment, sampling habitats) need to be provided in the best possible conditions, where they are more useful (in this case, by the sea), to any qualified researcher in need, and at a fair cost. This was a fully Dohrnian approach (followed also by son and grandson as second and third directors of Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, SZN), and it was a contribution of marine biology to all sciences. Historically, SZN can be considered a ‘magic mirror’ in which even the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) could see the beauty of its present-day research model reflected: a model where external researchers can access the institution.

Portrait of Anton Dohrn
Public domain photo. Anton Dohrn, circa 1880.

Dohrn, who read zoology and medicine at the universities of Königsberg, Bonn, Jena and Berlin, was initially interested in entomology until Ernst Haeckel in Jena introduced him to Darwin's work. He then became one of the most fervent defenders and promoters of Darwin's theory of evolution. In the 1860s and 1870s, the studies for the consolidation of the evolution theory were centred around the morphological analysis of animal forms and due to Haeckel's recapitulation theory (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny), comparative embryology was its cornerstone. So Dohrn’s election was done, ‘Darwinian morphology’ would be his religion and marine animals his apostles.

During the period of his doctorate, habilitation and lectureship between Bresslau and Jena (1865-1870), Dohrn made several trips to sample marine fauna by the sea. First to Helgoland with Haeckel in 1865 on a trip that was immortalised in a famous photo illustrative of the times, marine zoologists traveling to the seaside with their sampling gear. Scientists really enrolled into ‘Mission Impossible’ kinds of adventures! They paid for their own sampling equipment and microscopes which they transported during their trips and used while in the field. The second trip was to Hamburg in 1866, the third and fourth ones to Millport (Scotland) with David Robertson in 1867 and 1868, and the fifth was to Messina, during the winter of 1868-1869. This last trip, which he did with his friend, the Russian zoologist and anthropologist Nikholai Miklouho-Maclay, proved to be determinant in settling Dohrn by the sea in Italy.

Picture of Anton Dohrn and other scientists
Anton Dohrn (left) and Ernst Haeckel (right) fully equipped with their fellow naturalists during their sampling expedition to the shores of Helgoland in 1868.
Bust of Anton Dohrn
Anton Dohrn in the painting and Charles Darwin in bronze in the ‘Fresco room’ of SZN in Naples, the central room of this unparalleled marine biological station (Photo by Ibon Cancio).

The two Messina fiends, working in their two rented rooms with a portable aquarium that accompanied them on their trips, came upon a realization. They understood immediately the service they could be paying to science if they could host scientists (and the Evolution theory) in locations by the sea, where biodiversity can be found at its highest complexity, with ready-to-use and permanent laboratories, support facilities, equipment, libraries and trained personnel. Their plan was to cover the global coastlines with a network of zoological stations where researchers could stop, study, exchange and go! 

This quest catalysed all the charm, personal financial muscle and science/political diplomacy and management power that Dohrn could display. In 1870, Dohrn decided that the big city of Naples, at the time with 500,000 inhabitants and 30,000 visiting tourists per year, would be a better place for his station than Messina. The biological richness of the Gulf of Naples and the existence of a large university with a strong international element were also drivers for such a decision. After visiting the Berliner Aquarium Unter den Linden, one of the first public aquariums in the world, he decided to bet on outreach to ensure the sustainability of the station. Visitors to a public aquarium adjacent to the laboratory would contribute funds to the station. Then, Dohrn convinced, not without problems, the city authorities to lend him a piece of land in the ‘Villa Comunale’ free of charge with the condition that he would build the Stazione Zoologica at his own expense (family fortune and contribution of friends, colleagues, and Prussian government). A good way to gain an idea of the struggle and degree of planning of Dohrn’s undertaking can come from looking at the multiple letters that he exchanged with Charles Darwin on the matter of the construction and beginning of operations of the station. 

Dohrn to Darwin – 30th December 1869
Having stayed now several times on the seashore for zoological studies, I have found how difficult it is to study Embryology without an Aquarium. This want has suggested me the idea of founding not only Aquariums, but Zoological Stations or Laboratories on different points of our European coast. Such a Station should consist of a little house of perhaps four rooms, an Aquarium connected with the sea and the house … a boat for dredging work, dredges, nets, ropes, in short, all that is necessary for a marine Zoologist. Besides glasses larger tumblers, bottles; acids and other chemical objects, and lastly a library…
...I might risk no difficulty in raising as much money as might be necessary to construct and furnish the first Station…
...I would now beseech you, to send me a few lines, wherein you tell me, I might rely upon your consent, with that I am sure I might prove to everybody, that my intentions are good and useful, and I might get the means necessary for the building.
If such a Station is ready, every Zoologist might go there, have all instruments at hand, even more, than he would ever have afforded by his own means. He would now be obliged to add all his experiences about the Fauna, the Habitat etc. into a large Diary...

Darwin to Dohrn 4 January 1870
The opinion of naturalists who have visited the coast for some special investigation would be worth far more than mine. I fear your plan will cost you much loss of time in writing letters and making arrangements. I would suggest to you to delay attempting so great an addition as the formation of a scientific library”.

Dohrn to Darwin 13 January 1870
Of course, I never intended to ask you the smallest sum of money in favour of my plan, and I hope I shall carry it on without making use of your Kindness and liberality. I have got that idea of the Zoological Stations into my head, and I think I’ll not get rid of it, but by building at least one”.

Dohrn to Darwin September 1871
The Napolitan affairs get on very well, and I am prepared to begin building October next. I have secured the assistance of the Berlin Minister of Instruction and the personal sympathy of the German ambassador at Rome.
I have got some eminent German Naturalists,-Helmholtz, Dubois-Reymond, Leuckart, Haeckel, Carl Vogt, Siebold etc. to write me letters, stating the great importance for Science of the complete carrying out of my plans. These letters I am about to print together with a short explanation of my undertaking.
I have got the “Times”, “Nature”, “Athenaeum”, “Pall Mall Gazette” and some others to write in favour of the “Zoological Stations”. Mr. Norman Lockyer besides has promised me to secure the assistance of the most important American Papers. I myself am able of doing every thing in the great German Periodicals and Papers; Italy too is at my disposal, so that, including the different travelling books, Murray, Baedeker etc, all these Elements of the Press have been won.
I am quite satisfied with the result of the Edinbourgh Meeting. The new Comittee formed by Prof. Huxley, Rolleston, Percival Wright, Dr. Sclater and Ray Lankester will, I hope, be sufficient to carry on the subject in this Country. I am about to visit the German Meeting and get its assistance too. In the first week of October the International Meeting of Anthropologists will be held at Bologna and I think I may bring them to testify their adherence to the Stations”.

Dohrn to Darwin February 1872
I cannot say much about the progress of the Station,-only it is to be done. The difficulties in this country are something quite unheard of for all of us northern people. The indolence, dishonesty, hatred even against a good and disinterested enterprise, are quite regular qualities with this people, and it wants one’s last resources of nervous energy to overcome the physical hindrance and the moral disgust, it fills one with. I am now so far, that I can begin the construction…”

Dohrn to Darwin August 1872
“I am very glad, that I could tell in my Report, that everything was going well with the Station at Naples, and that I hope, I may open it, to admit the Public in January next. There was a good deal of battles to be fought, but success was obtained everywhere, and my hope to get the Station into an effective working Institution is greater than ever”.

Darwin to Dohrn August 1872
I heartily rejoice at the success of your great Naples undertaking; and I fully believe that you have thus done a great service to science. I shall be proud and pleased to send to your Library, whenever you desire it, a complete set of my books”.

Dohrn to Darwin January 1873
The library is growing very fast, I hope in short to publish a catalogue of what it contains already. The British Association has granted the complete set of their publications, and the Zoological Society their Proceedings.
My life here is a constant fight with intrigues and difficulties raised by the Municipality. But I knew beforehand that the best part of energy here would be not to get tired, and always rebegin, if anything went wrong. And thus I feel quite safe, that I’ll get over all the numerous obstacles, which they will further throw in my way”.

Darwin to Dohrn 7 March 1874
I have just heard from Huxley that you are much over-worked and troubled about the Zoological Station. This has grieved me much. I am glad that you are now willing to receive assistance from English naturalists, not on your own account, but for the Zoological Station. I have written to Huxley about communicating with any men who will be likely to give their aid in this good work. As I do not know whether you may not be short of money at present, I have thought that you would allow me to send you at once my subscription of £100, and one of £10 each from my two sons George & Francis. As I want to catch todays post, I write in haste, but believe me you have my heartfelt sympathy and respect”.

Dohrn to Darwin July 1875
“I have to thank you very cordially for it, but unfortunately for me I am so much pressed with business, and that of such a restless character, that I find neither time nor, what is still more important, a fit disposition of mind to present me in society, and especially in a house like yours” ... “all I would have to say to you, would be to thank you once more very heartily and earnestly for having once rescued me from shipwrecking, I think I may do this as well in a letter, and defer a visit to such period, where the care for the Zoological Station will have let me free and the food-yolk of my embryonic scientific conceptions may have so far disappeared as to allow a fuller presentation of the embryo to eyes like yours”.

Darwin to Dohrn 13 July 1879
I suppose that I owe to your great kindness the gift of the three very handsome & valuable Parts of the Mittheilungen. Zoolog. Stat. zu Neapel. I thank you much for this gift. Whenever I see, as I often do, references to the splendid work done at your Station, I heartily rejoice at your success & at the great service which you have conferred on Science”.

Darwin to Dohrn February 1880
Perhaps you saw in the papers that the Turin Society honoured me to an extraordinary degree by awarding me the “Bressa” Prize. Now it occurred to me that if your station wanted some pieces of apparatus, of about the value of 100 pounds. I should very much like to be allowed to pay for it…I would send you a cheque at any time”.

Dohrn suggested back to that letter that the money would be best used to start a travel bursary scheme for English researchers. Last letters between the big two men are dated in February 1882, a couple of months before the death of Darwin.


Dohrn opened the station to visiting scientists in late 1873, and to the general public in early 1874. It gathered with time one of the most extensive and relevant libraries in marine biological research. It became a hub for the provision of marine biological resources and samples worldwide. The station did not have an internal scientific program. Its mission was to promote biological research and knowledge on evolution principles with two initial department, those of morphology and botany. Science would be carried out by visiting researchers, in a kind of continuous regenerating international congress. Dohrn introduced the 'Table system' through the rental of work and research space. For an annual rental, individuals, scientific institutions, private foundations, universities or governments could send one scientist to SZN for one year with laboratory space, animal supply, chemicals, library and expert staff at hand.

The plaque on the main door of SZN in honour of Anton Dohrn, its founder, on the 100th anniversary of his birthday. Next year, 2022 we shall commemorate the 150th anniversary of the station itself (Photo by Ibon Cancio).

However, Dohrn is not to be remembered as a great scientist himself. In 1875 he published Der Ursprung der Wirbelthiere und das Princip des Functionswechsels: Genealogische Skizzen on the origin of vertebrates. Opposed to Haeckel and Gegenbaur, he defended the annelid theory instead of the ascidian theory. More interesting than discussing these theories, which are not so relevant today (but which were ‘battlefields’ at the time), is the fact that Dohrn completely broke relationships with his former habilitation directors. Proof of that is that neither Haeckel or Gegenbaur ever visited SZN, while their students such as Boveri or the Hertwig brothers often did. In research, the biggest contribution that Dohrn catalysed himself with Paul Meyer from SZN was the birth of histology as the discipline that we know nowadays. This was enabled by Dohrn’s personal acquaintance and friendship with Zeiss (microscopes), Abbe (achromatic objectives), Merck (chemical reagents for histological processing) and Jung (microtomes). As a result, all technological innovations in the field were first tried and demonstrated at SZN at Naples.

Anton Dohrn using microscope
Anton Dohrn making use of a microscope in the laboratory at Naples, where so many instrumental and technological innovations were applied first for the advance of traditional histology as we know it nowadays (source: public domain).

And what about the dream to open a network of stations around the globe? Dohrn gave a lot of himself in constructing just one, but yet a prefect one. In any case, he was supportive of any other attempts. He initiated a training programme for scientists and technicians at other marine laboratories around the world, and SZN became a training hub for a whole set of institutions. He even trained naturalists in the Italian Navy to assist in good preservation of the samples they collected during the Vettor Pisani circumnavigation expedition of late 19th century. Furthermore, Dohrn enrolled himself in another founding mission. In 1894, he received the visit of Richard Parkinson an ethnographer and merchant living in New Pomerania (now New Britain in Papua New Guinea). New Pomerania in the Bismarck Archipelago had become a German protectorate in 1884. Dorhn was born in Pomerania and was interested in opening a marine station in Ralum (in the Gazelle Peninsula), under the supervision of Parkinson. Dohrn obtained funding for the new station through the German Government and public institutions, and the Ralum station, with Dohrn’s support, equipment, material and personnel opened in 1895. This was not though a very successful enterprise and it only lasted for 2 years, but that, dear reader…is another story!

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