Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology
History of the Symposia
CSHL Digital Photo Archives


The Cold Spring Harbor Institutions

The first institution on the southwest shore of Cold Spring Harbor was the Biological Laboratory of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Founded in 1890, the Biological Laboratory was used as a summer venue for courses in zoology, botany and nature study for teachers. Charles Davenport was appointed director of the Biological Laboratory in 1898 and became an enthusiastic Mendelian geneticist following the discovery of Mendel's work in 1900. He persuaded the Carnegie Institution of Washington to open a "Station for Experimental Evolution" on the Cold Spring Harbor site, to use genetics to understand how evolution came about, and the Station was opened in 1904 with Davenport as director of this as well as of the Biological Laboratory.

Reginald Harris and Quantitative Biology at Biological Laboratory

The Station for Experimental Evolution flourished, supported by the Carnegie Institution, but the Biological Laboratory fared less well. In 1924, it was put under the management of the Long Island Biological Association, a group of wealthy neighbors. Reginald G. Harris was appointed director of the Biological Laboratory with the charge of revitalizing it so that it could compete with its rival, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.

Harris made many changes but none so important as initiating a new style of research for the Laboratory. Beginning in the early years of the century, and especially through the proselytizing of Jacques Loeb, an experimental and quantitative approach to biological questions had come into being. The title of Loeb's classic book, The Mechanistic Conception of Life,epitomized this approach. The Biological Laboratory had not been part of this movement but Harris brought in scientists working on biophysics, endocrinology and pharmacology,to join those working already on genetics. However, these research fields did not last long at Cold Spring Harbor following Harris's untimely death in 1936. By 1940, all traces of his quantitative biology program had disappeared.

The Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology

Harris's lasting legacy is a series of meetings held annually-the Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology and their associated red volumes. Harris (1933) wrote in the preface to the first volume of the Symposia series: "...The primary motive of the conference symposia is to consider a given biological problem from its chemical. physical and mathematical, as well as from its biological aspects". The word quantitative highlighted Harris's goal for research and he saw that holding meetings was a way to promote both that approach to biological research and the Laboratory.

The Symposia became tremendously successful under the leadership of Milislav Demerec. whose own research in bacterial genetics, and especially his hospitality to Salvador Luria and Max Delbruck, led to Cold Spring Harbor becoming a gathering place for molecular geneticists. Indeed, the history of molecular genetics can be read in a series of Symposia beginning in 1941 and ending in 1966:

1941   Genes and Chromosomes
1946   Heredity and Variation in Microorganisms
1947   Nucleic Acids and Nucleoproteins
1951   Genes and Mutations
1953   Viruses
1956   Genetic Mechanisms: Structure and Function
1961   Cellular Regulatory Mechanisms
1963   Synthesis and Structure of Macromolecules
1966   The Genetic Code

The Photographs

One endearing feature of the each Symposium volume, beginning in 1949, has been the inclusion of snapshots taken of the participants by each other, and, later, by the Laboratory photographers. The photographs are fascinating because they show the extraordinary scientists who have attended the Symposia. One opens volume XIII from 1953, for example, and finds photographs of Nobel laureates A. D. Hershey, S. E. Luria, E. L. Tatum, F. Jacob, A. Lwoff, J. D. Watson, W. M. Stanley, B. McClintock, and M. Delbruck, as well as such notables as M. Chase, N. D. Zinder, E. M. Witkin, M. H. Adams, L. Szilard, R. D. Hotchkiss, A. Sabin, G. S. Stent and W. Hayes. And, for the early years, the pictures show a style of dress and activity that is far removed from that of the present day molecular biologist.

However, the photographs appearing in the printed volumes are only a small fraction of those in the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives; there are some 2900 photographs and 12,000 negatives. All of these, other than those appearing in the printed volumes, are "lost" because they are inaccessible and because no-one knows whose pictures are included. All this photographs have now been digitized and made available through this web site, providing an unparalleled resource for pictures of the leaders in biology since 1949.

Future Developments

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is now developing an archive that will become the center for historical research on modern experimental biology. The Symposia have been one of the great institutions of such research for almost 70 years and the history of whole fields can be found in the pages of the Symposia volumes. We expect to continue to work on the background to the Symposia, locating primary materials relating to the organization of the meetings, interviewing participants, and attempting to recreate the style and nature of the Symposia that have had such a profound impact on biology.

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