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

Félix Joseph Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers (15 May 1821-21 July 1901) was an academic and influential French professor. He devoted his research to the anatomical investigation of different groups of marine animals, primarily corals, mussels and snails, but also tunicates, brachiopods and other invertebrates. He will be always remembered for founding two of the world’s oldest and most prominent marine stations in history: one in the Atlantic Ocean (Station Biologique de Roscoff) in 1872, and the other one in the Mediterranean (the Arago Laboratory, now named Observatoire Océanologique de Banyuls-sur-Mer) in 1882. The year 2021 marks the bicentenary of the birth of this character of immense personality.

Picture of Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers
Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers in the 1890s (public domain photo).

Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers was born in Montpezat and raised quite far from the sea. After high school, he studied medicine in Paris, taking courses at the Faculty of Sciences and the National Museum of Natural History. He graduated in medicine in 1851, obtaining a PhD in sciences, specialising in the study of the female genital apparatus of insects. In 1854, he became a professor of zoology at the newly created Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lille, which was directed by Louis Pasteur. In 1863, Lacaze-Duthiers moved to Paris as assistant professor of zoology at the École Normale Supérieure. He became professor at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris in 1865, becoming chair of natural history of molluscs, worms, and zoophytes. In 1868, he replaced Henri Milne-Edwards (who had been his professor and part of his PhD defence jury) as professor of comparative zoology and physiology at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Paris. He was elected member of the French Academy of Sciences in the department of anatomy and zoology in 1871, an institution whose presidency he would hold in 1893. So, his career was marked by positions in Lille but mainly in Paris. Far from the sea but close to the places where things are made possible and decisions are taken. He was a professor in some of the most powerful institutions in France, and as such, he knew how to fight his battles. Besides, he had been the son of an authoritarian Baron!

From 1853 to 1870, Lacaze-Duthiers constantly visited coastal localities in France and abroad where he would install a provisional laboratory that he transported from coast to coast. He had been lured by the zoology lectures of his professor at the Museum, Henri Milne-Edwards, who argued that animals should be studied alive, in their natural habitat and away from museums. To Milne-Edwards we probably owe the first attempt ever to create a coastal marine station…one that failed for lack of financial support (but that is a story that we shall visit some other day). 

If we follow Lacaze-Duthiers’s summer 'holidays' we would have to follow him and his mobile laboratory first to the Balearic Islands to study molluscs between June and August 1853. In 1854, he travelled from Caen to Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer on the coasts of Normandy and Brittany for two months. In 1855, Lacaze-Duthiers returned to Saint-Jacut, and in 1858, he stayed in Corsica from April to June and in the Balearic Islands from June to August. His trip to Corsica allowed his first dredging studies using the coral dredge to sample corals and other benthic animals. These were followed by a series of expeditions for coral fishing in Algeria every summer from 1860 to 1863. The samples collected in Algeria provided the material for his famous book on corals, 'Histoire naturelle du corail' (1864), in which the development of hexacorallians and octocorallians were described for the first time (leading to the Bordin Prize from the French Academy of Sciences in 1863). He then visited different sites on both coasts of metropolitan France, Port-en-Bessin and Saint-Quay-Portrieux in 1864, Arcachon and Cette in 1865, and Roscoff in 1868, 1869 and 1870. Finally, he had arrived at Roscoff, where summer research has been uninterrupted from 1868 up to the present day, or 153 years.

Picture of book Histoire naturelle du corail
The 'Histoire Naturelle du Corail' (1864) with a coral wonderfully illustrated by Lacaze-Duthiers himself. (Photo by Ibon Cancio)


Roscoff was not the place that Lacaze-Duthiers had imagined for his permanent marine station. The first name of the station at Roscoff was 'Laboratory of Experimental Zoology'. Lacaze-Duthiers defended a certain vision of zoology against physiologists like Claude Bernard, who was an advocate of experimental physiology, the molecular biology or the genomics of those times. In 1872, he also founded the journal Archives of Experimental and General Zoology. The main scientific purpose of the marine station and the Archives was to help develop research in experimental zoology. What he meant by 'experimental zoology' was explained in the long opening article of the first volume of the Archives. The experimental method was central, but contrary to what was defended by physiologists, physiology was not the only discipline in biological research using experiments to explain things. (Natural history and zoological research were mainly descriptive until biology became mainly experimental.) This type of discussion, when a science such as biology was branching into different disciplines, may seem philosophical and inconsequential nowadays. Yet the issue was that the French government did not have funds for everyone, and different universities were fighting for funds for research and to contract qualified academic staff for the new disciplines being created. Lacaze-Duthiers was fighting for his funding. Bernard was fixated on understanding the unity of life while Lacaze-Duthiers wanted to understand its diversity, a goal that became the mission of most of the marine stations in the last quarter of the 19th century. Finally, they both had different views on the role of science in society. While Bernard was the 'paladin' of applied sciences, Lacaze-Duthiers praised the value of basic and theoretical sciences, independent of immediate applications.

Image of Zoologie experimentale
First edition of the Archives of Experimental and General Zoology of 1872 after its publication was delayed in 1870 due to the Franco-Prussian War. The first paper of the volume was contributed by Lacaze-Duthiers to explain his vision of experimental zoology. (Photo by Ibon Cancio)
 

This conflict between disciplines occurred publicly but behind the curtains of the war between Prussia and France (1870-1871). This played a major role in Lacaze-Duthiers’s decision to create a permanent marine laboratory instead of continuing to move. When the war was declared in July 1870, Lacaze-Duthiers was about to send out the first edition of the Archives and the publication had to be delayed. Lacaze-Duthiers, together with three students, stayed in Roscoff at the Hôtel du Pigeon Blanc for most of 1870 during the war. The Prussian army attacked France in August 1870 and Paris was besieged for four months, until the Prussian army conquered the city in January 1871. Lacaze-Duthiers did not go to the coast in 1871, to make sure that the Archives would be sent on time to the subscribers. However, Alfred Giard, one of Lacaze-Duthiers’ advanced students and later director of the marine Station of Wimereux (1874), stayed in Roscoff from July to November, to study the development of tunicates. Colleagues informed Lacaze-Duthiers about the imminent creation of a marine laboratory in Naples by a German scientist, Anton Dohrn. In fact, Anton Dohrn created the Zoological Station in Naples in 1872, which officially opened for visitors in 1874. In early 1872, Lacaze-Duthiers urged the French administration to create a marine laboratory in France and so the Laboratory of Experimental Zoology ran its first season in the summer of 1872 with Lacaze-Duthiers and his student Edmond Perrier.

Access to researchers was not possible until June 1873. Upon creating the station in Roscoff, Lacaze-Duthiers was moved by the idea of reawakening France intellectually in science and education after militarily defeat. One of the reasons that prompted Lacaze-Duthiers to open his itinerant laboratory to visitors in 1872 was the necessity to train a new generation of French zoologists. Different students of Lacaze-Duthiers’s would later create and direct most of the French marine stations in the 19th century. He wished to offer the possibility to freely do research in zoology in good, modern conditions for a large number of students and young researchers. Everything, including bench space, access to ecosystems and equipment was free of charge, except meals. The laboratory was installed in a rental house by the sea. In the same year, two very different marine stations were thus created: one in Roscoff and one in Naples, one run by a French professor the other one run by a Prussian scientist. In Naples, access to the marine station was granted by renting table space with an annual fee; the rental allowed bench space, fresh daily study samples, equipment and know-how. Tables were rented by some of the major European, American and Russian universities and scientific associations as well as different governments and were considered elitist by Lacaze-Duthiers. He did everything in his power to stop any French institution from renting a table in Naples, and he succeeded until the 1930s, 30 years after his death in 1901. By 1910, there had been 630 visitors to Naples from Germany, 163 from Russia and 153 from the UK (to mention just some of the countries), and only four from France. On the other hand, this meant that the last quarter of the 19th century resulted in a Renaissance period for marine biology in France, unmatched in any other country, with the birth of a series of French marine stations, close to 20, both in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Every French university needed its marine station.

The laboratory at Roscoff was first open only from May to October, receiving quite a few scientists every year before Lacaze-Duthiers would ultimately decide to make Roscoff a permanent site in 1876. Many of the researchers who went there were French students but there were also foreign scientists from Belgium, the UK, Switzerland and Russia. Once the decision to settle permanently was taken, a villa across the street from the house rented for the laboratory was purchased with the help of the French government in 1876, which became the new permanent station. Continuous growth was made possible through donations from the French Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1877, a fisherman was hired by the Faculty of Sciences (Paris) to guard the laboratory, maintain the equipment, and start an official service of free delivery of fresh animals during the winter. Recipients only had to pay for shipping and send back jars and boxes. Between 1877 and 1891, 1,099 boxes were shipped with an average of two or three jars per box in France and abroad. Between 1872 and 1881, 132 researchers visited the Roscoff station.

Picture of Roscoff marine station in 1902
Laboratory in Roscoff in 1902 (Wikicommons)

Until 1877, the laboratory was dedicated only to research, with students working exclusively on research projects. In 1877, Lacaze-Duthiers invited a few of his undergraduates to Roscoff but it was the summer of 1881 that marked the arrival of students to take formal courses and the year in which the Laboratory of Experimental Zoology officially became part of the Faculty of Sciences in Paris. Research and education are the two big pillars that sustain the service provision of marine stations in the societies where they are rooted.

Roscoff had a problem though. Winters are harsh and this complicates seashore sampling and analysis. Additionally, there was no electricity and local funding could not be obtained. This prompted Lacaze-Duthiers to look for another destination to allow ecosystem observation during the winter season, and he found that place in Banyuls-sur-Mer by the Mediterranean and close to the Spanish border. There he found land paved to his intentions, with a municipality willing to lend the lands and providing a 30,000 francs donation to add to the 10,000 francs donation from the General Council of the Oriental Pyrenees (to be added to the funds provided by the Ministry of Instruction) for the construction. The municipality also offered to contribute with an annual fund of 500 francs for the operational costs. On top of that, the local biodiversity was rich, providing plenty of opportunities for research and offering attractive scenery to visitors. That is how the Observatoire océanologique de Banyuls-sur-Mer (OOB) was founded in 1882.

Newspaper clipping
Newspaper clipping (in French) dated 15 April 1893, featuring Lacaze-Duthiers and OOB (also known as 'Laboratoire Arago') 

Readers can follow the anniversary of the 200th birthday on the dedicated OOB web page. His legacy is now obvious when looking at the two marine stations that he founded, both part of the Sorbonne University and the French CNRS, but also of EMBRC. 150 years have passed since Lacaze-Duthiers had an idea to provide access to marine research by the sea to researchers easily and in the best conditions. Today, both institutions continue to offer access to researchers worldwide though EMBRC and EMBRC France.

Picture of OOB marine station
OOB, also known as the 'Laboratoire Arago' after an astronomer, François Arago, who was born in the same region. (Photo by Ibon Cancio)
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