The Perils And Excitement Of An Iowan’s Floating Marine Biological Laboratory Of 1893

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William Larrabee Expedition Photographs, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa

Members of Charles C. Nutting's 1893 salt-water life expedition.

At Bahia Honda the mosquitoes were so thick no one slept for two nights. And, although the insects were annoying, the group of Iowans from a “floating marine biological laboratory” were in the midst of an experiment that would produce a trove of valuable information.

It was the spring of 1893. Charles C. Nutting, a State University of Iowa (SUI) zoology professor, led a team from Iowa to Cuba and the Bahamas traveling on a floating laboratory. The group consisted of teachers and students from SUI and other colleges, as well as a doctor, attorney and journalist. It gave the scientists and students an opportunity to study saltwater marine life firsthand, something they weren’t able to do in Iowa. They would be collecting and preserving a wide variety of marine life that would be studied back in Iowa City in the university laboratories and classrooms.

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Preparations for the trip began in winter 1892 and spring 1893, when Professor Nutting lined up a vessel, the Emily E. Johnson, a 116-ton, 95 foot, two-masted schooner. There were four staterooms, a small saloon and a toilet room. He immediately began modifying the boat to accommodate the work of the scientists and students. Dredging equipment, a hoisting machine and 300 fathoms of wire rope were installed. Sky lights were inserted to allow natural light into the lab. And, of course, there were microscopes. Capt. Charles Flowers, a “seaman of first class,” was hired as skipper, along with a small crew.

The university was not able to provide funds for the endeavor, so the professor got creative. Engineering students designed and built trawls, and the rest of the expenses were picked up by the participants themselves — $200 each. The money went for provisions, transportation to and from the coast, port charges and the wages of the skipper and crew. Railroads offered special discounts for participants traveling from Iowa to Baltimore, where the boat would depart.

Students applied to become part of the team. Some of the first applicants were females, and this caused a dilemma. After much discussion, the decision was made to “give the girls a chance” but only after reliable chaperones were found. Seven of the 21-member team were women.

The floating lab sailed from Baltimore on May 5. The team experienced severe sea sickness the first few days. Their first stop was at Egg Island, Bahamas, on May 12. They spent a day collecting samples of seaweed, in which they found “interesting forms of animal life.” On their way to Havana, Cuba, they crossed the Great Bahama Bank, a “submerged plateau of great extent.” Here they conducted their first dredge, where they collected their “most valuable specimens.” The team reached Havana on May 21. Here they collected “a magnificent series” of about 150 specimens from depths of 150-250 fathoms.

Then it was on to Bahia Honda, a port 60 miles west of Havana. Here the locals were “suspicious” of the Iowans, so they decided to stay within 30 yards of the shore. Next, on to Key West, Cuba, arriving on June 5. Rather than face 15 days of quarantine there, they traveled to Dry Tortugas, where they stayed for 11 days, exploring the waters around abandoned Fort Jefferson. Spending two weeks at Pourtales Plateau, they gathered large numbers of corals, hydroids, crustaceans and echinoderms. They also “secured” dolphins and sharks.

On July 1 the group spent time at Eleuthera, where the boat ran aground as a result of the actions of an “incompetent pilot.” They had to wait for the next high tide, when they were pushed out to sea. The team stopped at Spanish Wells, where they gathered corals, star fish and sea urchins. Their last stop was Little San Salvador. Then the expedition began to make their way back to Baltimore, arriving in eight days.

They had packed their specimens in tanks filled with alcohol and soldered them tightly shut for the return trip. The team had collected about 15,000 specimens.

“This was probably the largest amount of marine natural history specimens ever shipped at one time into the interior of the United States,” Professor Nutting wrote in 1894. He expected the collection to provide “decades of lab study and research.”

In June 1894 the team held a reunion in Iowa City. The room was decorated with objects from the voyage: an S.U.I. pennant, the log book and the ship quadrant. Blackboards in the room were decorated with sketches of scenes from the expedition. The meal replicated a typical meal onboard the boat, hard tack and corned beef. Professor Nutting was the toastmaster. Samples of the toasts: “The Moral Aspects of the Expedition,” “Medical Friends at Tortugas,” and “Those Who Didn’t Go.”

(The University of Iowa Libraries holds texts and photos from the expedition in its “William Larrabee, Jr., Collection of 1893 Expedition.”)

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  • “Appendix to President’s Report, Some Extracts From Professors’ Reports, Report of Charles C. Nutting, Professor of Zoology on University Expeditions,” The State University, Biennial Report, Vol 26, p 42-45. Iowa Dept. of Public Instruction, G.H. Ragsdale State Printer, Des Moines, IA, 1893.
  • “Coelenterate Biology 2003: Trends in Research on Cnidaria and Ctenophora” Edited by Daphne G. Fautin, Jane A. Westfall, Paulyn Cartwright, Marymegan Daly, Charles R. Wyttenbach, p 16, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, 2004.
  • “Items in Brief,” Quad-City Times, Jul 28, 1893.
  • Nutting, C.C. “History of the Bahama Expedition,” Annals of Iowa, Vol 1, p 298-302, Nov. 4, 1894.
  • “Reviewed the Voyage,” Daily Leader (Davenport), June 7, 1894.
  • Sabin, Ed L. “Deep Sea Dredging,” Morning Democrat (Davenport), Jan. 13, 1894.
  • “The State University of Iowa,” Midland Monthly, Vol 1, Jan.-June 1894, p 180-182. Johnson Brigham, Publisher, Des Moines, IA.
  • “To the Bahamas,” Daily Citizen (Iowa City), Apr. 1, 1893.
  • “William Larrabee, Jr., Collection of 1893 Expedition,” University of Iowa Libraries, http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/scua/archives/guides/rg30.01.22.html

 

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