History of the Benthic Invertebrate Collection

Historic images of the Benthic Invertebrate Collection. Image credits: Scripps Archives and William Newman.
Historic images of the Benthic Invertebrate Collection. Image credits: Scripps Archives and William Newman.

Founding of the Institution

Specimens contained in the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Benthic Invertebrate Collection date back to 1902, when Dr. William E. Ritter of the University of California Berkeley and summer students began conducting biological survey work from the Boathouse of the Hotel Del Coronado. That summer, Dr. Ritter met Dr. Fred Baker, a local physician and avid malacologist who became very excited over the prospect of having university-affiliated marine biologists working in the area. The resulting collaboration of these scientists with San Diego area residents E.W. Scripps and his sister Ellen B. Scripps led to the formation of the Marine Biological Association of San Diego in 1903. The expressed purpose of the Association was to carry on a biological and hydrographic survey of the waters of the Pacific Ocean adjacent to the coast of Southern California and to build and maintain a public aquarium and museum.

From 1905 to 1910, the Association operated the Little Green Lab at Alligator Head in La Jolla for scientific work and as a public aquarium-museum. During this period E.W. Scripps arranged the purchase of 170 acres of land, the site of the present campus, for the sum of $1,000. The first building on the new site, the G.W. Scripps Building, opened in June of 1910. The lower floor contained the research laboratories, collections, and public aquarium-museum. In 1912 the Association deeded its holdings to the Regents of the University of California, and the facility was renamed the Scripps Institution for Biological Research with Dr. Ritter as its first director. A library-museum adjoining the G.W. Scripps Building was added in 1916, and the oceanographic collections occupied parts of this building until after World War II. In 1925 the institution's name was changed to Scripps Institution of Oceanography to reflect its expanding interests in ocean sciences.

Growth of the Collections

From the very beginning, scientists collected marine organisms for research and public display. Dr. Ritter was the chief scientist aboard the U.S. Fisheries Steamer Albatross during its 1904 summer cruise off California, and several specimens of corals from that historic cruise are housed in the Benthic Invertebrate Collection. The Baker-Kelsey Mollusk Collection, part of which was donated to the Scripps collections in 1921, documents a substantial portion of the regional molluscan fauna around the turn of the last century.

The ichthyologist Dr. Carl Hubbs arrived at Scripps in 1944, and he separated the biological collections into the marine vertebrates and invertebrates. In 1951 the T.W. Vaughan Aquarium-Museum was constructed and the biological collections were moved into its basement. They remained there until the late 1950s, when spaces in the basements of the new wings of Ritter Hall were set aside for the Marine Vertebrate Collection and the planktonic component of the Invertebrate Collection.

Following the passage of a California State Earthquake Building Retrofit or Replacement Bond in 1994, the administration decided that the Vaughan Hall Aquarium-Museum and those wings of Ritter Hall containing the bulk of the collections would be torn down. A fully air-conditioned replacement building, sufficiently large to include all biological collections as well as other facilities, was built in 1998 and named Vaughan Hall after the old Aquarium-Museum building. Grants from the National Science Foundation funded compactor shelving for the collections, greatly adding to their accessibility as well as the capacity of the new facilities. In addition, the Benthic Invertebrate Collection space now includes a laboratory, an office for the collection manager, and a microscopy/library room.

Staff Members

As the collections grew in size and diversity, they required a staff to care for them. In 1918, Dr. George McEwen was appointed the first Curator of the Oceanographic Museum with Percy S. Barnhart as Collector and Curator of the Aquarium. By 1926, Mr. Barnhart was elevated to the position of Curator of the Biological Collections, a position he held until 1948. Following Mr. Barnhart's retirement, various people looked after the Invertebrate Collection in an unofficial capacity, particularly Sam Hinton, Director of the Aquarium-Museum, and Dr. Martin W. Johnson; others served as collection managers, including Leo Burner in a temporary capacity and George Snyder in a full-time capacity, 1959-1990.

Dr. William Newman arrived in 1962 as Curator of Invertebrates. He subsequently arranged to divide the collection into Benthic and Pelagic Invertebrate Collections and served as the Curator of the Benthic Invertebrate Collection, with Dr. Abraham Fleminger as Curator (1966-1988) and George Snyder as Collection Manager of the Pelagic Invertebrate Collection. Tom Cukr was appointed Collection Manager of the Benthic Invertebrates. He drowned several years later on a recreational dive, unfortunately, and was succeeded by Spencer Luke in 1969. Mr. Luke produced the first catalogs of the Benthic Invertebrate Collection holdings and established an electronic database for subsequent catalog development. Following Mr. Luke's retirement in 1998, Larry Lovell became the Collection Manager in 1999. Mr. Lovell reorganized the collection and orchestrated its move from the basement of old Vaughan Hall to that of the new Vaughan Hall. In 2006, Dr. Gregory Rouse was appointed the Curator of the collection following Dr. Newman's retirement. Dr. Harim Cha arrived in 2007 as the collection manager, followed by Dr. Charlotte Seid in 2017.

Invertebrate Research

Several prominent marine invertebrate biologists worked at the Institution in its early years, helping establish it as the premier oceanographic institution on the U.S. West Coast. The first director, Dr. Ritter, worked on tunicates, and his successor, Dr. T. Wayland Vaughan, worked on corals. Dr. Myrtle E. Johnson, an invertebrate zoologist at Scripps from 1904 to 1921, co-authored an early field guide, Seashore Animals of the Pacific Coast, with Dr. H. J. Snook of San Diego State College. In his later years, Dr. Wesley Coe, a world authority on nemerteans, worked at Scripps (1938-1955) and published on population fluctuation dynamics in marine invertebrates. Drs. R.R. Hessler and W.A. Newman worked largely on deep and shallow-water crustacean fauna, respectively. The current Curator, Dr. Rouse, works on phylogeny and systematics, primarily of annelids and echinoderms with a focus on deep-sea and chemosynthetic environments.

In addition to serving as an important archive of the marine invertebrates of Southern California, the Benthic Invertebrate Collection has unique geographic and bathymetric strengths. The Collection represents diverse environments, including coral reefs, seamounts, hydrothermal vents, hydrocarbon seeps, whale falls, the abyssal plain, and deep trenches, and contains an unprecedented wealth of biological material for research and education.