Dohrn, Felix Anton

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(b. Stettin, Germany [now Szczecin, Poland], 29 December 1840; d. Munich, Germany, 26 September 1909)


Dohrn, named Felix Anton for his godfather Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy but always called Anton, was the third of three sons born to Carl August and Adelheid Dietrich Dohrn: an older sister, Anna, was born before the parents were married. The Dohrn family was prosperous financially, talented musically, and socially and intellectually prominent in Stettin and in Germany more generally. Yet its members were highly individualistic rather than establishmeniarian, and for a number of generations sons rebelled against their fathers. Anton’s paternal grandfather, Heinrich Dohrn, trained as a surgeon, established a sugar refinery that proved durable and lucrative. Anton’s father, a natural son later legitimized, first reacted against family traditions but later became interested in natural history through Alexander von Humboldt, a family friend. He became an entomologist of distinction and editor of the influential Stettiner entomologische Zeiischrifi. Anton was not the only one of his sons to become a naturalist; the oldest son, Heinrich, for some time followed his lather’s career of entomology but eventually became a member of the Reichstag; the other son. Wilhelm, became a landowner.

Dohrn became attracted to entomology through his father and published his first article at the age of sixteen. He attended, as was then customary in Germany, a number of universities, including konigsberg, Bonn, Berlin, and Jena, where he studied with Gegenbaur and Haeckel. His studies were, however, intermittent, interrupted by military service and by extensive travels, and also as a result of his own self-doubts. The zoology that he learned in the 1860’s failed to excite him, and at one time he decided to become a bookdealer. But Darwin’s On the Origin of Species rekindled his interest, and he was habilitated in Jena in 1868.

Dohrn’s dissertation dealt with the anatomy of hemipterans, but after its completion he became more interested in crustaceans than in insects. In his zoological studies he carried out combined morphological and embryological investigations in an attempt to elucidate the phylogeny of arthropods. He then began to study homologies between arthropods and vertebrates, especially with regard to head and appendages; and this led him to speculation on the origin of vertebrates. He ultimately attempted to show that they had been derived from annelids.

But it was not through his scientific investigations that Dohrn left his greatest mark. His primary contribution was the establishment of the Zoological Station in Naples; it was not only the first laboratory set up specifically for marine studies but also the first institute formally organized for the sole pursuit of research and the prototype of those that followed. Once Dohrn was habilitated, the thought of narrow academic life did not appeal to him; he also did not wish to remain in Jena near Gegenbaur and Haeckel, the fixity of whose ideas now was repellent to him. In the autumn of 1868 he visited Messina, Sicily, where he took some portable aquariums: by using them he was able to follow continuous embryological and larval transformations during crustacean development that had never before been observed. This was a decisive factor in the development of his idea of establishing a research laboratory for the study of marine organisms. In 1865 Dohrn had studied marine animals in Helgoland with Haeckel and others; and from that time on, he was aware of the importance of their investigation for the new comparative physiology and embryology, and of the necessity for organized laboratories in which to study them. Public exhibits in aquariums were beginning to be set up in several European cities, including London, Hamburg, and Berlin; and techniques were being developed for keeping aquatic organisms alive in such facilities.

Dohrn began to formulate the plans for his new venture during the winter of 1870. In the autumn of 1871 he settled permanently in Naples. He maintained his permanent residence there until he died. In February 1874 the Zoological Station was opened. The years between 1870 and 1874 were highly turbulent for Dohrn. Obtaining the land on which the station was to be built from the municipality of Naples, in the Villa Reale, the most beautiful park in the city, in order to establish what then seemed to be a German institution, presented only one of many problems. Success depended in part on the beauty of the sketches, made by Dohrn himself, for the proposed building. Securing the permission to start construction, then to continue it after the height of the building was found to have been miscalculated because of an architect’s surveying error, caused more serious worries. Subject to periodic depressions. Dohrn also had to combat ill health. The most compelling concern was the source of funds to erect, and then to maintain and administer, the station.

Dohrn’s father was at first totally unsympathetic to the enterprise, viewing the plan as Utopian and hopelessly impractical, and considering investment in it as the wildest of gambles. He ultimately became convinced of its worth, however, after having received letters in support of it from Charles Darwin and Karl Ernst von Baer. No one could write more feelingly than Baer; when he had gone to Trieste if) 1846 to attempt to return to the embryology he had abandoned twelve years before, he lost his experimental material when it was thrown away by the maid who cleaned his hotel room, which was the only place he had to keep it. Carl August Dohrn’s financial support was the first given to the laboratory. After long, complicated, and difficult negotiations, the next funds received were granted by the Prussian Academy of Sciences

Earlier in his thinking, Dohrn had the original and imaginative idea that entrance fees paid to see the exhibits in the public aquarium on the ground floor of the building might support the research in the laboratories on the floors above. When it became evident that this was infeasible, the plan for incorporating a public aquarium in the building was nonetheless maintained; effective methods of circulating well-aerated seawater in the tanks were developed, and the aquarium was for many decades one of the finest in the world. In his next plan for research support, Dohrn, mindful that corporations and wealthy private donors guaranteed annual fees for the support of beds in hospitals, for the use of individuals designated by them, conceived the idea that governments or institutions might support work tables in the Zoological Station, to be used by investigators of their choosing. Translated into reality, this brilliant notion not only ensured support for the station but also made the laboratory a truly international venture. While early support was governmental or through academies of science, eventually universities or such agencies as national research councils supported tables. The American Association of University Women for many years supported a table for American women to use.

The tables in the station were not bare; when Theodor Boveri spoke, in 1910, about their establishment, he compared them with the “Table, set yourself” of the fairy tale. Each had a freshwater and a seawater aquarium; well-stocked communal supply rooms for chemicals, glassware, and apparatus were established; and keen-eyed collectors and willing laboratory assistants provided for all needs of the investigators. When the station opened, there were ten tables; by 1910 the number had risen to eighty used at a single time. A library was set up that became one of the richest biological collections in the world. The station published both its own periodical and an extensive series of monographs describing the exceptionally rich flora and fauna of the Gulf of Naples; by 1972 thirty-nine monographs had appeared. Dohrn had originally thought that he might set up several marine stations-a plan he did not carry through—but Naples served as a model for other marine laboratories soon established elsewhere. It was also a model for the many research institutions that became so important for the progress of science in the century to follow. Thus the laboratory became, in the words of E. B. Wilson, “a potent force in the progress of biological science throughout the world.”

Progress in the study of morphology, taxonomy, life history, comparative embryology, and many other aspects of marine organisms was given enormous impetus by the availability of invertebrates and vertebrates captured alive, and of facilities to examine and work with them under optimum laboratory conditions. Investigations on the distribution of marine forms that now would be classified under the rubric of ecology were abundant, and important pioneering experimental investigations were carried out at the station. Especially significant were investigations in comparative physiology and experimental embryology, which became the foundations of whole new sciences.

On 3 June 1874, shortly after the station was opened, Dohrn married Marie von Baranowska, whom he had first met in Messina in 1868. They had five children: a daughter, who died in infancy, and four sons: Bogus lav, Wolf, Reinhard, and Harald. Boguslav studied physiology and medicine, but ultimately became a property owner. Wolf had literary interests, and both he and Harald had political inclinations; Harald was arrested by Nazi storm troopers and was shot without a trial. Reinhard, like his father, became a zoologist; and after his father’s death, which terminated his directorship of the station, Reinhard carried on the administrative responsibilities of the station with energy and imagination.

Music, as well as science and public affairs, was an integral part of the life of the Dohrns. The home of Heinrich Dohrn, Anton’s paternal grandfather, was a musical center in Stettin. Anton’s parents were both musical as were his brothers. Wilhelm Dohrn’s son (Anton’s nephew) became music director in Breslau. Anton’s sister Anna was the grandmother of the conductor Wilhelm Furtwan-gler. Besides Mendelssohn, many other great musicians frequented the Dohrn household: Joseph Joachim, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Jenny Lind among them. The Dohrns also numbered others of note among their circle: Eleonora Duse, Fridtjof Nansen, Rudolf Binding, Werner Siemens, and Ernst Abbe. Dohrns had talent for friendship as well as for science and art. Anion’s friendship with the sculptor Adolf Hiidebrand and the painter Hans von Marées had great consequence for the station: Hildebrand designed the fine facade, and Marées painted in one of the public rooms a group of frescoes that soon became as famous among artists as did the laboratories of the station among zoologists. Music, art, and literature were not peripheral to science in the life of these truly cosmopolitan spirits, but an integral part of it. The success of the station is a monument to international cooperation on the highest planes of combined intellectual and cultural endeavor.


A complete bibliography of Dohrn’s published works (80 items) is in A. Kühn, “Anton Dohrn unddie Zoologie seiner Zeit.” in Pubblitazione della Staiione zoologica di Napoli supp. (1950). This is an extensive and intensive analysis of Dohrn’s scientific work. The definitive biography of Dohrn is Theodor Heuss, Anton Dohrn (Berlin-Zurich, 1940; 2nd ed., en!., Stuttgart-Tübin-gen, 1948) The 2nd ed. reprints a touching essay by Margret Hoveri, “Das Haus am Rione Amedeo,” describing life in the Dohrn household; it was written after the house had been destroyed by Allied bombs. Its destruction marked the end of an era in European science and culture.

Naturwmenschaften28. no. 51 (1940), commemorated the hundredth anniversary of Dohrn’s birth; it includes, among a number of other articles, a reprint of the perceptive memorial address on Dohrn delivered by Theodor Boveri at the International Zoological Congrèss in Graz, previously published separately by Boveri as Anton Dohrn. Gedächtnisrede, gehatten auf dem Internationalen Zoologen-Kongress in Graz am IS. August 1910 (Leipzig,-1910). An excellent brief evaluation of Dohrn is B. B. Wilson, “The Memorial to Anton Dohrn;” inScience34 (1911). 632-633.

Jane Oppenheimer