Anton Dohrn

Anton Dohrn

Felix Anton Dohrn ( September 29, 1840 - September 26, 1909) was a prominent German Darwinist and the founder and first director of the Stazione Zoologica, Naples, Italy.

Family history

Dohrn was born in Stettin (Szczecin), Pomerania, into a wealthy middle class family. His grandfather, Heinrich Dohrn, had been a wine and spice merchant, and had made the family fortune by trading in sugar. This wealth allowed Anton's father, Carl August, to devote himself to his various hobbies; travelling, folk music and insects. Anton, the youngest son, read zoology and medicine at various German universities (Königsberg, Bonn, Jena and Berlin), with little application or enthusiasm for his studies.

Introduction to Darwinism

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".

Dorhn received his doctorate in 1865 at Breslau, and his Habilitation in 1868 at Jena. During these times, he worked several times at facilities located on by the sea: Helgoland 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 Russian friend and colleague Nicholai Miklukho-Maklai.

Development of "marine stations"

In Messina, Dohrn and Micloukho-Maklai conceived a plan to cover the globe with a network of zoological research stations, analogous to railway stations, where scientists could stop, collect material, make observations and conduct experiments, before moving on to the next station.Dohrn realised how useful it would be for scientists to arrive at a location and find a ready to use laboratory. Dohrn rented two rooms for the "Stazione Zoologica di Messina", but quickly realized the technical difficulties of studying marine life without a permanent structure and support facilities, such as trained personnel and a library.

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 he decided the charging the general public to visit an aquarium might earn the laboratory enough money to pay a salary to 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 would be potential visitors to 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.

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

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

The "Bench" system

In order to promote the international status of the Stazione and to guarantee its economic and hence political independence and freedom of research, Dohrn introduced a series of innovative measures to finance his project. Firstly, the rental of work and research space (the "Bench system"), for an annual fee universities, governments, scientific institutions, private foundations or individuals could send one scientist to the Stazione for one year where he or she would find available all that was required to conduct research (laboratory space, animal supply, chemicals, an exceptional library and expert staff). These facilities were supplied with no strings attached, in the sense that investigators were completely free to pursue their own projects and ideas.

This system worked extremely well, and when Anton Dohrn died in 1909 more than 2,200 scientists from Europe and the United States had worked at Naples and more than 50 tables-per-year had been rented out. It was in fact at Naples that international scientific collaboration in the modern sense was invented, based on quick and free communication of ideas, methods and results.this guy was cool, big time.


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 SAMS, 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 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.


Felix Dohrn shared his fathers interest in entomology. Before his death he presented the Entomological Society of Stettin, of which he was a member, with his world collection of Hemiptera


*Heuss, T. 1940: "Anton Dorhn in Neapel". Atlantis-Verlag, Berlin.
*Musgrave, A. 1932 "Bibliography of Australian Entomology" 1775 - 1930. Sydney
*Semenov-Tjan-Schanskij, A. P. 1909 [Dohrn, F. A.] "Revue Russe d'Entomologie" 9

External links

* [ Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn]
* [ Short biography, bibliography, and links on digitized sources] in the Virtual Laboratory of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
* [ Anton Dohrn Café Blog]
* [ DEI ZALF] Biographies of Entomologists of the World.
* [ Stazione Zoologica and the development of embryology]

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