Four Men and an Albatross: The Growth of American Oceanography, 1882-1921

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  • This essay concerns contributions made to the science of oceanography by the research vessel Albatross and four of the researchers associated with the steamer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the introduction, the author mentions some milestones in oceanography, such as establishment of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, during the years from 1882 through 1921. However, he views American scientific efforts undertaken on the Albatross throughout that time as the beginning of modern oceanography in the United States and an era when certain individuals set the standards for the oceanographic researchers that followed them.
  • The author explains that although a number of research vessels were used for scientific research before the Albatross, his paper focuses on that particular ship and four individuals associated with its oceanographic research pursuits during the 1882-1921 period: Spencer Fullerton Baird, Alexander Agassiz, S. Stillman Berry, and Henry Bryant Bigelow. The author provides a biographical sketch of these four individuals, relates the connection each had with the Albatross, and describes how the steamer facilitated their research to produce important contributions to the science of oceanography.
  • Spencer Fullerton Baird, the second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was born in 1823 in Reading Pennsylvania. He developed into a noted naturalist, and in 1850 was appointed assistant to first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry. Baird increased the Smithsonian's natural history collections as Assistant Secretary and advocated construction of a museum to house the collections. Although birds were his greatest interest, Baird had always been curious about fish, and after spending summers at Atlantic beaches over a number of years, especially following his first summer at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1863, became concerned about decreasing food fish stocks and urged research studies be undertaken to study possible causes.
  • Baird's efforts persuaded the U. S. Congress to establish the United States Fish Commission in 1871. Baird was appointed Fish Commissioner and after becoming Smithsonian Secretary in 1878, he sought help again from the federal government to build a research vessel intended solely for oceanographic research.
  • The Albatross was designed by Charles W. Copeland, who had earlier planned the Commission's floating hatchery ship, the Fish Hawk, and was built by the Pusey and Jones Company of Wilmington, Delaware. Zera Luther Tanner was charged with overseeing construction of the Albatross and served as commander of the ship for twelve years after its 1882 launching. The author details the attributes of the Albatross and reproduces Baird's letter of instruction to Captain Tanner for the steamer's first voyage, which introduced an integrated approach to fisheries biology studies instead of utilizing the collection and dissection methods common at the time.
  • The second individual selected by the author is Alexander Agassiz, the son of famed naturalist and Joseph Henry's friend Louis Agassiz, born in Switzerland in 1835. He came to the United States in 1849 and received a bachelor's and an 1857 engineering degree from Harvard University. While Spencer Baird was interested in questions related to fisheries biology, Agassiz concentrated on more theoretical questions associated with oceanic fauna.
  • During the period from 1891 through 1905, Agassiz made three largely self-funded research trips aboard the Albatross. Assisted by a new type of trawl created by himself and Captain Tanner, Agassiz conducted research on life in the mid-levels of the ocean, investigated similarities between Caribbean and Pacific animals, and performed studies on coral and coral reef animals. While credited for implementing efficient methods to collect research specimens, Agassiz also recognized the notable work of his assistant, Henry Bryant Bigelow, and that of University of California's Professor Charles A. Kofoid, performed during and after his final trip on the Albatross.
  • S. Stillman Berry was born in Maine in 1887, spent part of his youth in Montana but later moved to Redlands, California, which remained his home for the rest of his life. Berry received his Ph.D. at Stanford after completing a thesis on cephalopod mollusks, did research for a year at La Jolla and served as the first librarian of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography from 1913-1916. Other than managing the family Montana ranch properties until his death, the author notes that librarianship as the only formal job Berry ever held and states Berry devoted the remainder of his time to conducting research on cephalopod collections.
  • The author admits that unlike the other three individuals included in his essay, there is no evidence Berry ever traveled aboard the Albatross. However, he rationalizes Berry's inclusion by stating that major papers and oral presentations Berry produced were based on cephalopod collections gathered by Albatross voyages, and the fact that Berry's opportunity to work with those collections followed the growing trend at the time of researchers being recipients of specimens collected by other scientists.
  • Henry Bryant Bigelow, assistant to Alexander Agassiz, is the last of the individuals included in the essay. Bigelow was born in 1879 in Boston, and began college at Harvard in 1897. During his senior year, Bigelow heard that Agassiz was planning a trip to the Maldives Islands, and even though the two had not previously met, Bigelow approached Agassiz and asked if he could go along. Agassiz agreed and thus began a close association between them that lasted until Agassiz's death in 1910.
  • Bigelow accompanied Agassiz on an Albatross trip in 1904, completed his Ph.D. and married in 1906, and in 1907 he and his wife accompanied Agassiz and other members of that family on a coral reef surveying trip to the West Indies. Because of his past work with Agassiz, Bigelow was able to use the U.S. Fish Commission's schooner Grampus for studies in the Gulf of Maine, and in the spring of 1920 used the Albatross to conduct further research in the Gulf and Georges Bank areas.
  • The author comments on the legacy of the Albatross, the impact the steamer had on fishery studies, how it was an integral part of the scientists' work by enabling them to collect specimens and conduct research more efficiently in varied areas of the world. He views the Albatross as having revolutionized the study of oceanography.


  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Berry, S. Stillman (Samuel Stillman)
  • Kofoid, Charles A (Charles Atwood) 1865-1947
  • Tanner, Z. L (Zera Luther) 1835-1906
  • Copeland, Charles W
  • Agassiz, Alexander
  • Bigelow, Henry
  • Albatross (Steamer)
  • United States Fish Commission
  • United States Congress
  • Fish Hawk (steamer)
  • Grampus (Schooner)
  • Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology
  • Pusey & Jones Corporation
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • International Congress on the History of Oceanography


Smithsonian History Bibliography


  • Essay is one of 63 included in "Oceanographic History: The Pacific and Beyond," the Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress on the History of Oceanography, held at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California, on July 7-14, 1993.
  • Essay is the first in a chapter entitled "North American Oceanography and Marine Biology," which is one of eleven chapters comprising the Proceedings.
  • An extensive Notes section follows the essay.

Contained within

Oceanographic History: The Pacific and Beyond (Proceedings)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Scientific expeditions
  • Earth Sciences
  • Oceans
  • Congresses and conventions
  • Secretaries
  • Science
  • Societies
  • Design and construction
  • History
  • Federal Government
  • Cephalopods
  • Oceanographic research ships
  • Research vessels
  • Biography
  • Earth sciences
  • Science--History
  • Oceanography--Research
  • Oceanography
  • Cephalopoda
  • Science--Societies, etc
  • Research vessels--Design and construction


  • United States
  • Pacific Ocean

Physical description

Number of pages : 10; Page numbers : 288-297

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