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Carnegie Institution of Washington

In 1903 the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW), the privately-funded scientific research organization founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1902, approved a plan to establish a biological experiment station to study evolution. The Station for Experimental Evolution (SEE) formally opened on June 11, 1904 in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, to study heredity and evolution through breeding experiments with plants and animals. Under the initial directorship of Charles Benedict Davenport (1866-1944), the unit would flourish and operate for 67 years, undergo name changes as it fine-tuned its research focus, combine with and then close down a eugenics research operation, and eventually merge with neighboring Long Island Biological Association’s Biological Laboratory (LIBA Bio Lab.) This union eventually became Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research and educational institution which played a pivotal role during the 20th century in the emergence of molecular genetics, the scientific foundation of the revolution in biology and biotechnology.

In 1902, and again in 1903, Charles Benedict Davenport (1866-1944), approached CIW with a proposal to establish a biological station at Cold Spring Harbor. The trustees of CIW approved his plan, and he became the first director (1904-1934) of the Department of Genetics (originally named the Station for Experimental Evolution (SEE)). During this same time period Davenport was also the director of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences’ Biological Laboratory (BIAS Bio Lab), a summer field station for high school and college science teachers that he had led since 1898. The Department of Genetics and the BIAS Bio Lab were neighbors, operating on adjacent acres of land donated to each of them by The Wawapex Society, a philanthropic foundation established by the John D. Jones family of Long Island, New York. In 1910, while Davenport was directing both those operations, Mrs. E. H. Harriman established the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor for him to head as well. In 1918 the ERO was donated to CIW, and became part of the Department of Genetics in 1921. Davenport concurrently headed BIAS Bio Lab, CIW’s Department of Experimental Evolution (changed from SEE in 1918), and the ERO until 1924. That year ownership and management of BIAS Bio Lab was transferred to a newly formed Long Island Biological Association (LIBA). See Related Collections for histories of BIAS Bio Lab, LIBA Bio Lab, and ERO.

The occurrence of overlapping directorships was to be repeated again among the Department of Genetics, the BIAS Bio Lab, the LIBA Bio Lab, and the ERO during most of the 67-year span the Department of Genetics was in existence. See Cold Spring Harbor Organization Timeline 1890-1988 for organizational relationships and overlapping directors.

There were five directors of the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Genetics:

  1. Charles Benedict Davenport (1866-1944), director from 1904-1934
  2. Albert Francis Blakeslee (1874-1954), director from 1934-1941
  3. Milislav Demerec (1895-1966), director from 1941-1960
  4. Berwind Peterson Kaufmann (1897-1975), director from 1960-1962
  5. Alfred Day Hershey (1908-1997), director from 1962-1971


In 1962 CIW and LIBA’s Bio Lab agreed to merge to form Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Quantitative Biology. By 1970 the name was shortened to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. A reduced number of CIW scientific investigators, including Nobel Laureates Alfred D. Hershey and Barbara McClintock, would remain with a skeletal staff and operate as the Genetics Research Unit until it closed in 1971.

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This collection is currently being processed under a 2011-2012 DHP award. NYS Education Department Logo Funding provided by the New York State Documentary Heritage Progam.