Sharks and Chemists

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Man holding shark leather [Popular Mechanics, (Jan. 1928)]

Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea, opens with a scene of fishermen preparing their catch for market in a Cuban port. “Those who had caught sharks,” Hemingway writes, “had taken them to the shark factory on the other side of the cove.” Here the sharks were “hoisted on a block and tackle, their livers removed, their fins cut off and their hides skinned out.” Shark hide, referred to as “shark leather” in its processed form, was likely unfamiliar to most American readers when Hemingway’s novel appeared in 1952. Yet, for a brief period of time, during the 1920s, the shark leather industry had attracted a great deal of public interest. The prospect of turning sharks into leather seemed then to promise a valuable untapped marine industry, made possible though the collaboration of chemists, fishermen, and entrepreneurs.

One of the first people to try to develop the shark leather industry was a Czech emigrant to the United States named Alfred Ehrenreich. As The Milwaukee Journal announced in January 1928, “Since the beginning of time, when man first ventured on the sea, the shark has been man’s enemy.” Ehrenreich, the author announced, was “going to make the shark work for man.” Ehrenreich arrived in the United States in 1914, fleeing the outbreak of war in Europe. As a young man he had studied in Vienna and worked in the banking industry. He had spent his vacations, however, yachting on the Adriatic and Mediterranean, and there became fascinated with the biology of sharks. Soon he turned all his energies to developing commercial uses for sharks, rays, and porpoises. His first success was his discovery of a method for extracting oil from shark livers, but the real breakthrough came when he learned about the work of Brodo Bendixon, a chemist working in Copenhagen who had then recently patented a technique for tanning shark skins.

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[Popular Mechanics, (Feb. 1928)]

In 1917 Ehrenreich and Bendixon, with backing from American investors, launched the Ocean Leather Company in the United States and opened a small experimental tannery in Newark, New Jersey. Yet despite several years of continuous experimentation, the key process for turning sharkskin into a marketable-quality leather remained elusive. In a letter to investors, Ehrenreich explained that they had been unable to remove the “dermal dentical upon the skin of the shark” which was “hard as steel,” despite trying both mechanical and chemical techniques. A solution was finally discovered in 1919 thanks to the research of American chemists Theodore Kohler and Allen Rogers, both of whom had developed tanning methods using hydrochloric acid.

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Dr. Alfred Ehrenreich [The National Magazine, (Nov. 1921)]

Ehrenreich eventually hoped to produce much more than just leather from sharks. By 1920, the Ocean Leather Company had developed techniques for transforming the entire shark into various commodities: leather from the hide and intestine, oil from the liver, tanning chemicals from the glands, pigments from the gall bladder, fertilizer from the refuse, and fins and meat for the Asian food market. With the tanning process perfected, Ehrenreich now needed a steady supply of sharks and consumers. By 1920 the Ocean Leather Company announced to shareholders that they planned to increase catch to 1000 sharks a day and predicted a daily net profit of $17,076. Indeed, by 1921 the New Jersey tannery was processing nearly a thousand skins per week. The processed leather was then sold to manufacturers to make handbags and shoes.


At the height of their profits in the late 1920s, the Ocean Leather Company enjoyed endorsements from Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the Department of Commerce. Flush with cash they purchased a yacht named the Istar, and fitted her out as a floating factory and laboratory. A  description of the Istar appears in Milwaukee Journal:

The other day I paid a visit to the Istar, lying in the East India docks, […] It is now the only floating factory, tannery and chemical works in the world. I was shown a luxurious dining room and sumptuous bedrooms whose walls were lined with silk brocade. And from those rooms – bang into a factory with whirling machinery. […] It carries 10 motorboats, each equipped with 15 horsepower Diesel engines. Each boat is capable of holding five tons of sharks […] When the haul is made, the sharks are brought back to the ship. Here an ingenious machine invented by Ehrenreich skins the hide off as easily as you would peel a banana. The hide is then immediately salted down and treated with chemicals.

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The Istar [Popular Mechanics, (Jan. 1928)]

With the Istar, the Ocean Leather Company could expand its reach into the Southern Ocean where the number of sharks was thought “endless” and where the Istar could harvest a catch of thirty tons a day. Though the Istar garnered publicity for the company and carried out several successful hunting expeditions to Australian waters, it was not enough to guarantee the long-term success of the company. Ehrenreich found he had powerful enemies in the cow leather industry. One of his collaborators, Viennese chemist Rudolf Hauschka, who was in charge of outfitting the Istar, later described receiving death threats. “The world’s leather manufacturers went into the attack […] finally, I came to the realization that in a battle with a well organized world power we were bound to come off worst,” he wrote.


While the history of the shark leather industry (and of many other marine products) remains understudied, it nevertheless points us to a key feature of the history of science in the marine environment, often overlooked by historians. What the history of the shark leather industry shows us is that we should pay attention to the scientific work involved in “processing”marine products – the work of turning marine fauna into valuable commodities.

Additional reading:

José I. Castro, “Historical Knowledge of Sharks: Ancient Science, Earliest American Encounters, and American Science, Fisheries, and Utilization,” Marine Fisheries Review, (75) 4 (2013), pp. 1 -26.

Rudolf Hauschka, Dawn of a New Age: Memoirs of a Scientist (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1966).

Looking for Albatross in the Archives


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Roger Revelle presenting the albatross award to Sir Edward Crisp Bullard.

When I used to walk across the University of Washington campus, I sometimes passed the window of a laboratory in which a large stuffed albatross was prominently displayed. This deceased bird was mysteriously placed in a large metal birdcage. The peculiarity of the spectacle was enhanced by the fact that the laboratory housing the bird was on the bottom floor of the Ocean Sciences Building – a place where one might not expect the display of an animal considered an ill omen by sailors ever since Coleridge warned us of the fate of the mariner who “with his cruel bow […] laid full low, The harmless Albatross.” My curiosity was piqued and some Google searching soon brought an explanation for this unusual exhibit.

The albatross, I learned, is much more significant than a disintegrating stuffed bird in a metal cage might at first suggest. It is, in fact, an oceanography prize that has been in existence since the late 1950s and which is awarded periodically by a group known as the American Miscellaneous Society (AMSOC). This elusive organization was once described in the journal Science as “a mildly loony, invisible college of otherwise mature academicians.”[1] The society’s motto, Illegitimi non carborundum, can loosely be translated as “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” And, according to AMSOC’s founders, the origin of the albatross award can be traced to one particular wine-lubricated dinner party in 1959 at the home of Gordon Lill, oceanographer with the Office of Naval Research in Washington, D.C.

Bemoaning the lack of awards available to oceanographers, Lill and his guests, including John Knauss of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, decided they would then and there remedy the problem. With the help of a stuffed albatross gathering dust in the collections of the Scripps Natural History Museum, the prize was founded. Only once did the National Science Foundation recognize AMSOC as an official organization, when AMSOC lent its support for project MOHOLE, an unrealized scheme to drill into the earth’s mantle. Suffice to say that AMSOC is a very elaborate running joke that has lived on for half a century.

Despite its humorous nature, however, the albatross award does recognize scientific achievement. In the words of one of the former recipients, the albatross award is given to “someone with an albatross-like ability to make conceptual leaps on the scale of an ocean.” And indeed there are many celebrated names among the past recipients: Walter Munk, John Swallow, Henry Stommel, Roger Revelle, and Sir George Deacon, to name but a few.


One of the most sought-after prizes awarded at the annual Columbia History of Science Group meeting.

When I discovered the albatross award, I was reminded of other scientific “jokes” I’ve encountered over the years: the humorous songs composed at the Zoological Station at Naples, the dredging cartoons of Edward Forbes, and most recently a statue of Confucius which stands in the entrance hall of the Marine Biological Laboratories. No doubt there are many more out there. Humor, of course, is not limited to marine scientists. While I write this I am traveling to the Columbia History of Science Group meeting which takes place every year at the Friday Harbor marine station – a gathering with a long running tradition of humorous awards.

In my experience it is not uncommon to find relics of humor in the archival record; but what historical value can be gleaned from jokes? If we’re lucky we can also hope to find some indication of who “got” the joke. Writing in 1960, sociologist Rose Laub Coser argued that humor “can be understood only by examining its content and themes in the context of the network of role relationships among those who laugh together.”[2] In other words, those who laugh together form a network of relations and may then more easily see themselves as colleagues. Or, perhaps, only those who are a part of the community already are able to understand the joke. Thus, once we historians take on the task of understanding the joke, then the make-up of an otherwise invisible community may become suddenly apparent.

Historians of oceanography periodically debate who and what qualifies as oceanography. The reason we so often have this debate is that the marine sciences, and “oceanography” institutions and departments, encapsulate specialists in many different fields of study. Eric Mills has written that oceanography “does not lend itself to neat formulations, scientific or historical.”[3] However, by searching for archived humor, we historians may find other sign posts to guide our demarcations of the communities of marine scientists we study. Perhaps by following the wandering journey of a long deceased albatross we may learn something about who and what oceanographers understand to fall within the nebulous disciplinary boundaries of oceanography.


[1] R. G., “Do Oceanographers Have More Fun?,” Science, Vol. 181, Issue 4103 (7 Sept. 1973), 926.

[2] Rose Laub Coser, “Laughter Among Colleagues,” Psychiatry, Vol. 23, Issue 1 (1960).

[3] Eric Mills, “The History of Oceanography: Introduction,” Earth Sciences History, Vol. 12, Issue 1 (1993).

The Origin of Oceans

Alfred Wegener’s theory of “continental drift” directs attention to the origin of the continents, and in Wegener’s first publication on the topic this emphasis was reflected in the title: Die Entstehung der Kontinente (1912). By 1915, Wegener’s thinking had already evolved to an understanding that the “origin of continents,” was also, of necessity, the “origin of the oceans.” If the continents were not fixed, primordial features of the planet, always in the same place and in the same shape, and having roughly the same elevation, then neither were the oceans primordial features of the planet having the same shape and place and depth.

If the continents, as they do in Wegener’s theory, split and drift apart, in doing so they must create new oceans in the places between the fragments of a former continent. When Wegener published his first book-length treatment on the subject in 1915, he changed the title to Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane to reflect this aspect of the evolution of the Earth’s surface features.

Wegener went even further, postulating that the primordial earth was covered entirely by an ocean a few kilometers deep, and ocean he named Panthalassa. The still relatively warm floor of this primordial ocean was subject to folding and crumpling as a consequence of the Earth’s axial rotation, and gradually became rumpled enough to emerge here and there from the ocean creating the first continents. This emergence was not symmetrical, and led to the appearance of a land hemisphere and a water hemisphere. This original large proto-continent, that Wegener named Pangaea, split and drifted apart throughout geological history until it reached the present configuration.

The theory that Wegener proposed stood in opposition to two current theories at the beginning of the 20th century. One of these was the theory of the permanence of continents and oceans, which found favor principally in North America. The other was the theory of earth contraction, championed by many European theorists as an explanation for the formation of mountain ranges,. It was also, however a theory of the origin of oceans, especially in the work of Eduard Sueß. In Das Antlitz der Erde (The Face of the Earth), Sueß’s multivolume treatise on the origin and character of the Earth’s surface features, oceans were supposed to have been created by the down-faulting and collapse (through time) of large continental blocks on the shrinking Earth.

These two theories accounted for the the appearance of identical animals and plants on different sides of abyssal ocean basins in two different ways. The theory of continental and oceanic permanence hypothesized the existence of relatively narrow land bridges and island arcs that rose and fell throughout geologic history, allowing corridors through which the animals and plants might pass. The theory of the contraction of the earth, on the other hand, proposed that it was the sinking of these large continental fragments and the creation of ocean basins, that cut off a former continuity that had allowed animals and plants to spread across areas now cut off by emergent oceans.

Among the supporters of Wegener’s hypothesis of the origin of continents and oceans were paleobiogeographers like Edgar Dacqué and Edgar Irmscher, who pointed out, in a number of publications between 1915 and 1922, that Wegener has solved an important problem which the other two candidate theories could not address. This was the problem or the question of the volume of ocean water: Die Wasserfrage. There were actually two “water questions.” The theory of continental and oceanic permanence could not explain why, when land bridges emerged, they did not cause synchronous transgressions on the continents: they must displace huge volumes of water. Yet no such record of transgressions attributable to the rise and fall of land bridges appeared in the geologic column. The contraction theory faced the opposite problem: if huge fragments of the continents sank to the bottom of the ocean, where was sufficient water to come from to fill these newly created basins? Wegener’s theory had no such problem. Once the original proto-continent had emerged from beneath the waves through the crumpling of the thin, still-warm outer shell of the solid earth, the relative surface area of continent and ocean would remain the same throughout geologic history, but the relative position of the continents and oceans would be constantly rearranged.

While the theory of plate tectonics today treats continental displacement as an epiphenomenon of the appearance of new oceanic crust spreading out from the ocean ridges, still, like Wegener’s theory, it proposes that the relative coverage of the surface by land and water is very ancient, if not primordial, and that only the relative position and shape of land and water portions changes through time.

Wegener’s theory was thus recognized as an oceanographic as well as a continental theory by supporters and opponents alike, and Wegener’s importance to oceanography in the early 20th century was sufficiently great that when Alfred Merz died in 1925, Wegener was immediately offered (he declined) the professorship of oceanography at Berlin, and the directorship of the Berlin Oceanographic Institute. Between 1919 in 1924, Wegener had headed the meteorological section of the German Marine Observatory (Deutsche Seewarte) in Hamburg, and had he not just accepted a professorship at Graz in Austria in 1924, would quite likely have become the head oceanographer in Berlin. As we all know, Germany’s polar and oceanographic research institute today is the Alfred Wegener Institute, in Bremerhaven, and reflects the linkage between polar science and oceanography that were also united in Wegener’s work.

Emperor Hirohito: The Marine Biologist Who Ruled Japan


Emperor Hirohito in his lab. From E. J. H. Corner, “His Majesty Emperor Hirohito of Japan, K. G., 29 April 1901 – 7 January 1989.” The photographer and collection is unattributed.

Exactly seventy years ago today Japan surrendered to the United States, bringing an end to World War II and signaling the start of the American occupation. Under the direction of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, and his protégé General Bonner Fellers, the U.S. military began the process of Japanese war-crimes prosecutions. Fellers was instrumental in convincing the American leadership not to depose Emperor Hirohito. As Fellers wrote in an October 1945 memo to MacArthur, “It would be a sacrilege to entertain the idea that the Emperor is on a level with the people or any governmental official. To try him as a war criminal would not only be blasphemous but a denial of spiritual freedom.” Crucially, Fellers voiced concerns that deposing the Emperor might compromise the rapid demobilization of Japan. “If the Emperor were tried for war crimes,” he worried, “the governmental structure would collapse and a general uprising would be inevitable.”

These events are dramatized in the (unfortunately otherwise unmemorable) 2012 film “Emperor.” What the film leaves out from its cursory portrayal of Hirohito is any indication of the Emperor’s interest in marine science. Hirohito’s research in marine biology, specifically his study of marine hydrozoans, seems at odds with his state role – to use Fellers words – as “the incarnation of national spirit.” As the British botanist E. J. H. Corner later described Hirohito, “He wore two faces. There was the placid, impassionate, and, even, obedient leader in public regard, and there was the eager intent of the original investigator whether in the field or the laboratory, bent on discovery and understanding.”[1]

More recently, some biographers have suggested that Hirohito’s post-war portrayal as a symbolic state figurehead, powerless to resist a fanatical military leadership, served both American and Japanese post-war political aims and does not accurately reflect the Emperor’s true influence and sanctioning of the war.[2] While the officially authorized biography, published by the Imperial Household in 2014, portrays the emperor as a war critic, others have described this interpretation as “the sanitized political history of a nation that was not allowed to break completely with its wartime past.”

The truth of these conflicting portrayals continues to be debated largely because the records of the Imperial Household remain off limits to most historians. The question of Hirohito’s culpability in the war is something I prefer to leave for others to investigate, as I am not a specialist in Japanese history. Nevertheless, as a historian of marine science, I think it is worth questioning how we should interpret Hirohito’s interest in marine biology. Was Hirohito’s scientific work simply that of a hobbyist, or can an examination of his marine research serve to inform us in some way about this enigmatic figure? Taking advantage of the blog format, I’m content here simply to raise a question I think is worth asking, not provide a conclusive answer.

I’m tempted to infer from my work on European and American marine naturalists in the early-twentieth century that by participating in western science, publishing in western forums, and corresponding with naturalists abroad, Hirohito extended his reputation – if not his political influence – far beyond Japan’s territorial and cultural borders. Following the example of Prince Albert of Monaco (1848 – 1922), many members of the European and American social elite took up marine biology as their preferred amateur science; it seems likely that Hirothito also followed this trend. Furthermore, the public endorsement of “scientific progress” had become a requirement for European “enlightened monarchs.” Thus we might read Hirohito’s interest in marine biology also as a reflection of Japan’s larger cultural and political shift towards an emulation of European powers – and eventually their colonial ambitions.

At the age of 20, in 1921, Hirohito became the first member of the Imperial Household to travel to Europe. On his return, he was named Prince Regent. His mentor and chief scientific collaborator was Dr. Hirotaro Hattori, professor of biology at the Peers’ School Gakushuin. Hattori accompanied the Emperor on many collecting expeditions on Sagami Bay and also served as the Emperor’s scientific proxy, writing to European naturalists and distributing specimen collections on the Emperor’s behalf. Hirohito’s first important scientific discovery was of an unknown species of prawn in 1919. In 1925, with Hattori’s guidance, Hirohito had a laboratory constructed on the grounds of the Akasaka palace where he could carry out his research; Hattori was subsequently promoted to the position of laboratory director. From Hattori, Hirohito also gained an appreciation for Darwinism. In the imperial library a bust of Charles Darwin stood alongside those of Lincoln and Napoleon.[3]

Marine biology collecting, with its required small boat excursions, may have provided a means of escape from the many attendants required by royal tradition. Slime molds and hydrozoa were largely under-studied when Hirohito began his work, but while research on these topics of study offered the possibility of real scientific contribution it is unlikely that such work could have been perceived locally as having practical application. One might expect a head of state to concentrate their scientific efforts on research with practical application or benefit for their subjects; this might have been the case if Hirohito had focused his efforts on the study of a commercial species, for instance. It seems then that the primary audience for Hirohito’s scientific work was a foreign rather than domestic one.[4]

After the war Hirohito was forced to publicly renounce his status as a god, describing his reputed divinity as merely “legend and myth.” An American newspaper mocked that this must have come as a relief since “the role of playing a god must have been very exacting on this timid little man,” adding “Mr. Hirohito is privileged to live and breathe and bleed as other men.” In Japan, the Americans sought to promote Hirohito’s new image as a monarch on a human scale. And, in 1946, Hirohito began a series of unprecedented tours, addressing his subjects directly. The Japanese media also promoted the Emperor’s scientific work as an indication of his embrace of modernity. We will probably never know how Hirohito regarded the outcome of the war, or what he imagined to be his own role as a symbolic head of state. When asked in 1975 by a Japanese journalist whether he bore any sense of responsibility for the war, Hirohito replied: “I can’t answer that kind of question because I haven’t thoroughly studied the literature in this field, and so don’t really appreciate the nuance of your words.”[5] It is clear, in any case, that he wanted to discourage further examination of the past.

Putting his wartime legacy behind him, Hirohito continued to pursue his interest in marine biology in his later life, becoming a Fellow of the British Royal Society in 1971 and visiting the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1974. An American publication marking the occasion of his visit to the United States reported that the Emperor devoted “each Monday and Thursday afternoon” to marine biology. He carried on his scientific work until his death in 1989 at the age 63. The throne then passed to his eldest son, Emperor Akihito, who shared his father’s interest in marine biology. Akihito has since acquired an international reputation as an ichthyologist.

Even if Hirohito’s interest in marine biology was primarily that of a hobbyist, his scientific work, and certainly his network of collaborators, bears further investigation. I make this suggestion if only because the history of marine biology in Japan, and in Asia in general, is largely absent from western historiography. On the anniversary of Japan’s surrender, many will be prompted to re-examine the actors and events that shaped the course of the war. We historians of marine science might also be prompted to take a renewed interest in the Pacific World of the early twentieth century. As I have argued elsewhere, scientific collaboration was one of the primary forums for international exchange in the Pacific in the years leading up to World War II. We can do much more to trace those pre-war networks of scientific exchange.


[1] E. J. H. Corner, “His Majesty Emperor Hirohito of Japan, K. G., 29 April 1901 – 7 January 1989,” Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 36 (Dec., 1990), 243.

[2] Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000).

[3] Stephen Large, Hirohito and Showa Japan: A Political Biography, (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[4] Yves Samyn, “Return to Sender: Hydrozoa Collected by Emperor Hirohito of Japan in the 1930s and Studied in Brussels,” Archives of Natural History, Vol. 41, Issue 1, (2014), 17 – 24.

[5] Hebert P. Bix, “Showa History, Rising Nationalism, and the Abe Government,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue. No. 2, No. 4, (1 December 2015).

#PlatformsMatter: Design and the Marine Environment

One of the hashtags often used by the U.S. Navy in their various social media feeds is #PlatformsMatter. The term now frequently pops into my head while I’m doing research – a 21st century mantra for the marine historian. The importance of engineering and design for marine work is something I’ve thought about with respect to oceanographic platforms. For historians specializing in the study of a particular branch of science there is always the risk of focusing too narrowly on technological developments related to one area of study while ignoring developments in related fields. It is helpful to remember that, in a fashion similar to the process of biological natural selection, environmental characteristics and constraints help determine the “evolution” of technology designed to function in particular environments. Thus, we now find similar design elements across various types of marine platforms.

Perhaps the most challenging environmental characteristic of the ocean is the constant motion – as anybody who’s ever experienced seasickness will undoubtedly attest. A naval engineer trying to figure out how to aim a battleship’s guns on a rolling vessel and a marine chemist trying to stabilize a sand bath aboard a research vessel are faced with the same environmental problem. Thus, both the oceanographer and the naval officer want a stable platform for their work at sea. It should come as no surprise then that if we trace back the history of various marine technologies we will find earlier technologies with hybrid characteristics – common ancestors of today’s marine platforms.

The "Hémi-Plongeur"

The “Hémi-Plongeur” side view…

Hemi Plongeur

…and underway

Let me give you an example. Around 1877, an Italian engineer named Donato Tommasi, then residing in Paris, proposed a design for a vessel that he named the “Hémi-Plongeur.” The vessel, as the name suggests, combined double submerged hulls with a circular platform held above the water by support towers. While I’ve found no evidence that this craft was ever built, it did excite a great deal of enthusiasm in the popular press. As Tommasi explained in a French journal, not only would the vessel be more stable and more comfortable for passengers, it would also be more efficient traveling through the water. The submerged hulls would be less affected by surface swell than a normal ship, and might even take greater advantage of passive transport on ocean currents (which might now be mapped in greater detail). In case of accident – a fire in the submerged engine room, for instance – the top platform could detach and become a life raft. Furthermore, the vessel could easily be modified for military use. The stable platform would allow easier targeting for the guns, and the submerged hull, acting like a submarine, could be flooded to lower the platform and reduce the surface area vulnerable to enemy fire. (Though the Hémi-Plongeur was never built, in 1873 the Imperial Russian Navy did launch at least two circular warships. However, instead of increasing stability, the circular hulls made these vessels difficult to maneuver.)

Perhaps in this failed 19th century precedent we can see ancestral attributes of both the modern floating oil rig and floating oceanographic research platform – the most famous being of course Scripps’ FLIP platform. The Hémi-Plongeur was the ill-fated Neanderthal branch in our technological evolutionary tree. Platforms matter; and engineers designing platforms for various types of operations in the marine environment must all confront the same environmentally determined limitations.

Scripps' FLIP platform

Scripps’ FLIP platform


Mad Dog Oil spar platform

Fisheries Politics Masked as Science

9780226249667Is Maximum Sustainable Yield a tool of science or of diplomacy? For the world’s fish populations, the concept has stood for years as a working blend of economic goals and conservation principles. The word “sustainable” lends it a particular respectability in our environmental age. It purports to answer the burning question about how many fish can reasonably be taken from the sea when their numbers are dwindling and many vessels, from many different nations, all want a piece of the action. MSY suggests that scientists possess the expertise to predict the largest catch that can be taken from a species’ total stock without threatening its survival.

Despite this so-called “sustainable” practice, there have been numerous crashes in marine life populations. Many scientists have criticized MSY for providing an unrealistic view, not taking into account important variables in fisheries management. Yet the concept continues to stand at the core of contemporary American management practices.

In All the Fish in the Sea, Carmel Finley is unambiguous: Maximum Sustainable Yield is policy, masked as science. It dovetailed extremely well with the goals of the United States Department of State in the aftermath of the Second World War, as American fishing interests tried to find a scientific basis for extending their dominance in waters all over the world. Using MSY as a guide, they were able to justify fishing far in excess of what some scientists recommended and what many other states wished.

Our first commentator is Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu, the Dunlevie Family Chair of History at Rice University . Like Finley, she has explored the connections between fisheries and the history of international affairs, specifically in the Pacific Region. In her book Creating People of Plenty, Guthrie-Shimizu examined trade policy in the immediate postwar period to demonstrate how the United States sought to turn Japan not only into a Cold War ally, but a nation whose economic foundations were distinctly pro-capitalist.[1]

Arthur F. McEvoy, the Paul E. Treusch Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School, is well-known to environmental historians of the oceans because of his 1986 book The Fisherman’s Problem. While studying Californian fisheries, McEvoy told a tale of repeated failures of public agencies to take useful steps to stop the depletion of fish. His analysis focused on the interplay between ecology, economics, and the law. Like Finley, he saw serious flaws with the concept of MSY, particularly because it rested on the assumption that stocks of fish existed in isolation from their environments, with little thought devoted to more complex ecological relationships.[2]

Bo Poulsen is Associate Professor in the Department of Culture and Global Studies at Aalborg University, Denmark. He brings to this roundtable not only a European perspective but also expertise on fisheries politics in the North Atlantic. As an environmental historian, Poulsen has used historical scientific data to investigate how changes to the natural environment may have influenced fish in the distant past, particularly North Sea herring stocks in the early modern era.[3]

Our final commentator, Michael J. Chiarrapa, is Associate Professor of History at Quinnipiac University. Much of his work blends marine environmental history with architectural history. He has pointed out that fisheries architecture and fisheries landscapes deserve greater scrutiny by scholars, because of what they reveal about cultural values. In a recent essay in Environmental History, for example, he called upon historians to integrate buildings, boats, and other fisheries infrastructure more substantially into their work, because these are spaces at the threshold of the land-water continuum where discourse about nature is created.[4]

The full roundtable is available here.

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

[1] Sayuri Shimizu, Creating People of Plenty: The United States and Japan’s Economic Alternatives, 1950-1960 (Kent State University Press, 2001).

[2] Arthur F. McEvoy, The Fisherman’s Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850-1980 (Cambridge, 1986).

[3] Bo Poulsen, Dutch Herring: An Environmental History, c. 1600-1860 (Amsterdam University Press, 2008).

[4] Michael J. Chiarappa, “Dockside Landings and Threshold Spaces: Reckoning Architecture’s Place in Marine Environmental History,” Environmental History 18:1 (2013), 12-28.

Dining with the Ichthyophagous Club

dinner on the nautilus

Dinner aboard the Nautilus in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

I like to think of blog writing as a way to store away snippets of stories that I don’t want to forget. Often while researching a completely unrelated topic I’ll come across some interesting side path. Tempting as it might be to take a scenic detour, we are often constrained to the road upon which we first set out. But wouldn’t it be nice to leisurely explore all those side trails?

I sometimes find, however, that by working out my thoughts on the page I can sometimes better understand what it was that led me off the beaten trail in the first place. Sometimes the things that pique our curiosity – because they are unusual or bizarre – point the way to greater insight, even if it is unclear at the outset what that insight will be. In any case, the trail that once tempted you off into the woods, if passed by, will grow over never to be found again.

Thus it is, that today I am writing about the strange case of the New York Ichthyophagous Club, established briefly in the 1880s. As the name suggests, this was a club of distinguished gentleman who got together once a year for a seafood banquet. If you are now thinking to yourself that eating fish together is an insufficient basis for forming a gentleman’s club, you are correct. The Ichthyophagous Club was not concerned solely with the eating of fish, but with eating any and all marine creatures. Now, I imagine, it is starting to dawn on you how adventurous membership in the Ichthyophagous Club could be. To set the scene (and for your entertainment), I have copied below a song composed by one of the club’s members, Fred Mather, on the occasion of the fifth annual dinner on October 17th, 1884:

When the Ichthyophagous dines

There’ll be many curious dish

Of things ne’er caught with lines,

And not at all like fish –

Steaks of porpoise and ribs of whales,

Salami of muskrat and beaver tails,

Aspie of Jellyfish, octopus stew,

Shark-fin soup and gurry-gur-roo,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

For the Ichthyophagous eats

All things that live in the sea –

Slimy crawlers instead of meats,

Unusual to you and me.

Menobranchus from out the lakes,

Mud puppies turtles and water snakes,

Deviled hell-bender with sauce helgramite

Garfish older than trilobite,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

There will come to this ichthyic feast,

Things that crawl, or swim, or squirm,

The fish, the scaphiopus beast,

And the arenarius worm.

The garrulous frog and the frisky skate,

The batrachian toad-fish with flattened pate,

The flying fish with hyaline wing,

Will come with sea nettles, which prick and sting,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

The eel and the sturgeon will come,

And the lamprey with his nine eyes,

The swordfish and croakin drum,

And sculpin with look of surprise.

The gurnard will walk arm-in-arm with the dab,

The horsefoot will waltz with the great spider crab,

The sullen-eyed angler will ogle the sprat,

And the devil fish twine the shrimps round his hat,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

The fiddler crabs will fiddle

To the crowd so strange and weird,

And the prawns dance down the middle

While the mussel strokes his beard.

The oysters will swim in cuttlefish ink,

The starfish will tip the soft clam a wink;

Periwinkles served in skilly-go-lee,

A sight worthy footing it miles to see,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

When the Ichthyophagous dines,

There’ll be queer prog to eat;

The unusual thing in the way of wines

And a single course of meat.

The lobster will come in his coat of mail;

Weak stomachs will shrink from eating the snail,

But the brave ones will sample every dish,

Whether water-snake, muskrat, snail or fish,

When the Ichthyophagous dines.

From the same text in which this song was printed we also have the menu of the fifth club banquet. Sadly, it is not nearly as exciting at the song leads us to expect. Perhaps the most adventurous item  is “Croquettes of Limulus,” though we are also forced to ponder the meaning of “essence of devil-fish.” The menu for the sixth dinner of the following year also survives, the most unusual item being perhaps “bisque of star fish.”

While the dinners took on an appearance of carefree festivity, the club seems to have been founded with serious intentions in mind. When the New York Times announced the inaugural meeting, it reported that the dinner would “demonstrate the fact that there are quite as good fish left uneaten as ever came to market.” Holding the dinner as a public event would help “overcome prejudice directed towards many kinds of fish.” It should be of little surprise then that the gentlemen in attendance were “interested in fish culture.” In fact, the Ichthyophagous Club sought to promote the marine fishing industry. And, according to a recent blog article about the club posted by the New York Times, they succeeded.

The Ichthyophagous Club was not to last, however, and I was not able to determine whether an eighth meeting was ever held. “Where is the Ichthyophagous Club, with members of brave stomachs and inquiring gastronomic disposition?” lamented the author of an editorial published in the journal Forest and Stream in 1914. “United states senators, mayors, and high officials, men the very flower of our civilization, were wont to grace these festive occasions, and without turning pale, to brave all the mysteries of banquets ‘loaded’ for the tenderfoot.”

Perhaps some day these heroes will return… We could certainly use a few more “high officials” promoting more sustainable foods for our dinner plates – insects anyone?

So what is the great insight that the case of the Ichthyophagous Club imparts? I fear I have set up some false expectations in my introduction, as I don’t yet have a good answer. What we can conclude, is that the Ichthyophagous Club came into existence for a relatively brief moment in time – a period in the late nineteenth century when industrial fishing was still in its infancy, but growing exponentially. The Ichthyophagous Club is perhaps then a reminder that when we consider the rise and fall of resource industries, it is not enough to consider only technological change. Hence, the invention of the steam engine and the trawl alone cannot explain the growth of pelagic fishing in the late nineteenth century, consumers also had to learn to eat seafood once considered exotic.

The Entangled History of Oceanography and Medicine

Screen shot 2014-11-19 at 2.13.18 PM

I’ve been away from this blog for a few months while working away on my dissertation. But, having given a draft over to my committee, I thought I should take the opportunity to articulate on paper (or “on blog” rather) a topic that I’ve been thinking about now for some time: can we bridge the history of medicine and the history of oceanography? Certainly a history could be written about the extraction of medical resources from the ocean. In recent years marine natural products have become an important field of biochemical research. Or, we could discuss the development of “naval” medicine (think: Captain James Cook’s experiments with antiscorbutics in the late 18th century). Both are interesting topics to pursue. But, looking broadly at historical developments in medicine, and historical developments in oceanography, where are the points of intersection, and how can these fields of scholarship inform one another? I don’t yet pretend to have definitive answers for these questions, but I hope my discussion will stimulate further thinking on this topic.

While researching the life and work of Prince Albert Ist of Monaco, I unexpectedly came across an interesting episode in the history of medicine. The events are described in detail in the July 1991 issue of the History of Oceanography Newsletter, (predecessor to this blog) by deep-sea oceanographer and historian Tony Rice, and I have relied heavily of his description of events for the following account. [Another detailed account can be found here.]

water mark free stamp

Commemorative stamp released in 1953

In 1901, when Prince Albert set out on his usual summer research cruise aboard his yacht the Princess Alice II, he invited along two French scientists, Charles Richet (1850 – 1935), professor of physiology at the University of Paris, and Paul Portier (1866 – 1962), assistant in the laboratory of physiology at the Sorbonne. They set sail from Toulon on the 5th of July, bound for the canaries, Madeira, and the Azores. Portier and Richet’s intention was to study marine bacteria. This was a field of study that was still quite young, inaugurated only twenty years earlier during the French state-sponsored voyages of the Talisman and Travailleur by Adrien Certes. However, Prince Albert encouraged Portier and Richet to the study of the toxins of the Physalia physalis, better known as the Portuguese Man-o-war.

Prince Albert and Jules Richard, his chief scientific collaborator, had a long-standing interest in man-o-war toxin. They had previously observed that fish, once stung by Physalia, were rendered immobile while remaining alive. Portier and Richet performed numerous experiments injecting toxin extracted from Physalia into various animals brought along for experiment in the ship’s laboratory. Observing that the toxin rendered “ducks, pigeons, guinea pigs, and frogs” immobile and seemingly unconscious, they named the venom “hypnotoxin.” Once they returned to Paris they decided to continue these experiments. But, back on land, obtaining specimens of Physalia was naturally much more difficult. Thus, Portier and Richet began experimenting with another marine biological toxin, that of the snakelocks sea anemone, easily obtainable at the Roscoff marine biological laboratory in Brittany. This time they injected the toxin into dogs, which produced a similar and frequently lethal reaction.

Here the research took on a new dimension; having determined the quantity of toxin required for a lethal dosage, Portier and Richet began experimenting with injections just below the lethal threshold. They discovered that animals exposed to one dosage became hypersensitive to a second exposure. As Tony Rice has suggested, these results likely ran counter to their expectations. It seems probably that they were trying to apply Pasteur’s theory of bacterial immunity to toxic venoms and that they would thus have expected greater resistance in their test subjects to the second injection of toxin. However, subsequent experiments demonstrated that the more extended the time interval between injections, the more severe the second reaction.

This physiological response they named “anaphylaxis,” from the greek “ana” meaning “again,” and “phulaxis,” meaning “guarding.” This discovery led the way to a radical shift in the medical understanding of allergic reactions and, in 1913, Richet was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology in recognition for his work. (Portier, perhaps unfairly, did not share the prize with Richet.) But, for the purpose of my argument, it is important to note that this was not the end of Portier’s collaboration with Prince Albert, or indeed of his work in marine science. In 1903 we find him again aboard the Princess Alice II, this time in collaboration with Jules Richard, testing a new instrument for the retrieval bacterial samples from the water column. For over two years, he and Richard perfected their device – which they named simply the “bacterial bottle” – constituting a valuable contribution to the nascent field of marine microbiology.

So why does this story matter for the history of oceanography? Well, it is a reminder that the history of oceanography and medicine has been, and remains, entangled. I want to give two more examples to support this argument. The first is important because it demonstrates the broad impact that one fairly mundane marine biological discovery had on the field of medicine – a discovery from which everyone reading this has at some point benefited. The second example demonstrates how a technological development in physical oceanography, a product of the space age, brought about a life-saving public health initiative in the developing world.

Vaccinations, Prosthetics, and Horseshoe Crabs:

bleeding crabs

Screen shot from the 2008 PBS documentary: “Crash: A Tale of Two Species.”

One quart of horseshoe crab (Limulus) blood has an estimated value of $15,000. The horseshoe crab blood industry (yes, there is such a thing) has an estimated value of $50 million per year. How did this come to be? Well, it’s a story that began in 1885 when W. H. Howell (1860 – 1945) of Johns Hopkins University described the unusual clotting properties of horseshoe crab blood. It was no accident that he had begun studying horseshoe crab morphology, for horseshoe crabs were incredibly abundant along the eastern seaboard of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So abundant were they, that they were commonly used for agricultural fertilizer and livestock feed. And, though the horseshoe crab population has since declined substantially, they are still used as fishing bait today.

The accessibility of horseshoe crabs – notably, proximity to horseshoe crab spawning grounds – was an important consideration when the Marine Biological Laboratory was founded in Woods Hole in 1888. MBL soon became the principal center for horseshoe crab research in the United States. The research with the most lasting impact was carried out by Leo Loeb (1869 – 1959), a German-born experimental pathologist. Following the discoveries of Howell, Leob conducted numerous detailed studies of horseshoe crab blood and circulatory systems at Woods Hole in the 1910s and 1920s. The most important discovery, however, took place in the early 1950s when Frederick Bang (1916 – 1981) was finally able to identify the horseshoe blood clotting mechanism. These findings were published in a 1955 article, entitled “A Bacterial Disease of Limulus Polyphemus.” On the brink of a breakthrough of incredible importance for medicine, it is interesting to note that Bang writes in his discussion that: “Limulus was chosen for these studies largely as a matter of convenience and availability.”

The key finding was that horseshoe crabs possess a unique chemical within the amoebocyte cells in their blood plasma. This chemical, coagulogen, allows these mobile cells to quickly identify the presence of minute quantities of foreign bacteria. As an immune response, the amoebocytes then clot the blood, effectively trapping and isolating the contaminant. Pharmaceutical companies quickly recognized the potential medical applications of this biological mechanism. Today, five companies specialize in the capture and bleeding of horseshoe crabs in order to extract coagulogen from their blood. The chemical is used to test for the presence of contaminants in everything from intravenous drugs to surgical implants and prosthetics – anything that comes into contact with human blood. This test is called the Limulus amebocyte lysate test, or LAL for short, and this is how a seemingly commonplace marine biological laboratory organism became the foundation for a $50 million a year pharmaceutical industry.

Satellites, Sarees, Copepods, and Cholera:

cholera life cycle

Cholera vibrio life cycle – from Nature Reviews Microbiology 3, 611-620 (August 2005). Click image to link to article.

Finally, I want to turn to my second example of the overlap between oceanography and medicine. After many years of study, Rita Colwell (the first female director of NSF, then working as a marine microbiologist at the University of Maryland) and her collaborators were able to demonstrate that the bacteria, Vibrio cholerae, had a commensal relationship with copepods. In other words, they determined that part of the cholera bacteria’s life cycle takes place in or on the bodies of zooplankton, copepods in particular. By the early 1990s, it became possible to measure sea-surface temperature and height using satellite telemetry. Colwell and her colleagues soon noted a correlation between the annual cycle of sea-surface temperature change and cholera outbreaks in the Bay of Bengal. As the sea-surface temperature went up, so did the number of outbreaks. It soon became clear that warming (higher) seawater was more likely to mix with low-lying tidal rivers. Cholera bacteria carrying copepods were then moving upstream where they were infecting the people who used the rivers for drinking, cooking, and washing. Satellites could also detect changing chlorophyll levels in the sea-surface, making it easier to detect plankton blooms when the population of copepods also increased. This discovery led to an intensive health campaign in Bangladesh. Villagers were shown that if they folded their sarees at least four times and used them as filters they could remove copepods from their drinking water, in turn lowering their risk of cholera infection.

So where do these three case studies leave us? Well, I think it’s helpful to refer to the words of Dr. Eric Mills who, in defining the history of oceanography in 1990, wrote: “Definitions turn out to be cramping, inhibitory, and worst of all, an unadventurous aid to our scholarship. History of oceanography is what historians of oceanography write about.” As we continue to move our discipline forward, we should not be afraid to examine the potential areas of overlap between our field of study and other branches of historical scholarship. Increasingly, for instance, we have come to recognize the ways in which the methods and theories of environmental history can be applied to the history of oceanography. We should be on the lookout for other similar opportunities, and the history of medicine may offer new directions for research.

Oceanography: A Tradition of Song

sailors singingAs many of our readers may already be aware, a history of oceanography workshop, “Place and Practice: Doing Science in and on the Ocean,” is currently underway at King’s College in Halifax, NS. The guest of honour is ICHO founding member, and Dalhousie emeritus professor of oceanography, Dr. Eric Mills. In celebration of Eric – and in the finest oceanographic tradition – a rousing song was composed for the occasion by Dr. Helen Rozwadowski and set to the tune of the  shantey “Reuben Ranzo.” The lyrics are provided below: [lines in italics are sung in response after each line in regular font, as the first verse shows]

Good old Eric Mills-o

[Eric Mills, Eric]

Good old Eric Mills-o

[Eric, me boys, Eric]

Eric was no sailor

At Carleton he grew paler

At Yale he got his paper

And set forth on life’s caper

Eric chased the amphipod

Poked around the home of cod

He worked more than he oughta

Out there on blue water

Eric met a gal named Anne

And then asked her for her hand

Scientist for thirty

His soul begged for history

Wish I knew all Eric knows

What he wrote at the Bay of Rose

Navigator of our field

Passed along his great zeal

Now that Eric’s emeritus

He still does work so meritous

As for egrets, he’s had a few

Reddish, stuffed and live ones too

Now this song is over

Wait, is that a plover?

I say we sang in the finest oceanographic tradition because there is a long history of song in oceanography. And while “Good old Eric Mills-o” may yet (and should) enter the annals of the *history* of the history of oceanography, there is, perhaps, no more famous song in the record of oceanography than “The Dredging Song” composed by British naturalist Edward Forbes for a dinner at the Red Lions Club in 1840. The lyrics of The Dredging Song can be found in Philip Rehbock’s article “The Early Dredgers: ‘Naturalizing’ in British Seas. 1830 – 1850.” (Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1979). Unfortunately the original tune has not come down to us.

Yet, on the occasion of the first singing of “Good old Eric Mills-o” I thought it fitting to share with you a musical reenactment of Forbes’ Dredging Song. The following recording is a sneak peak from the upcoming “Edward Forbes and the Dredge” video I’ve been working on with University of Washington oceanography graduate student Michelle Wray. This version was arranged and performed on the concertina by Stony Brook University graduate student Michael Schrimpf – audio recording and editing by Michelle Wray:


Elusive Evidence of the Ocean’s Past

Jacob Darwin Hamblin

mortalsea(1) It’s fun to be a historian of the oceans these days.  Environmental scholarship has yielded some fascinating clashes of perspective in recent years, and the conversations are lively.  Scientists, historians of science, and environmental scholars are all working intensively to establish a narrative of the sea’s life forms, its physical and chemical conditions, and the impact of human activities.  They are doing so over extraordinary periods of time — hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.  Interpretation abound, opening a wide space for disagreement.

I recently asked Jeff Bolster to participate in an online roundtable about his Bancroft prize-winning book, The Mortal Sea.  The comments, and his response, stand up an ideal primer for some of the major issues involved in incorporating the oceans — and ocean life — into a broader story of human relations with the natural world.  

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