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A short history of marine science and the Association

The beginnings of marine science

Throughout Western Europe, the 19th century saw the establishment of science as an integral part of the cultural activity and creative effort of nations. Physical and biological sciences flourished and specialised, as the application of their results in the practical endeavours of engineering, agriculture, seafaring, and military activity became appreciated by industry and governments. The marine environment has always been of great importance to mankind both because of its resources and because it presents dangers. Recorded observations of marine fauna and the physical characteristics of the sea can be traced back at least to the 4th century BC, and scientific investigations were an integral part of the activities of the great maritime expeditions of the 15th and 16th centuries. Systematic, progressive sampling and description of the marine environment, though, only developed as distinct objectives in the middle of the 19th century.

Edward-ForbesThe influence of the British naturalist Edward Forbes stands out among the pioneers of the science of the sea at this time. The results of his programme of sampling of the marine fauna, The Natural History of European Seas, published posthumously in 1859, provided an important baseline for future studies. He identified the needs for new knowledge and, inadvertently, stimulated considerable interest and scientific controversy (Forbes had earlier mistakenly claimed that life could not exist in the sea below about 550 m). The publication in the same year of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species stimulated tremendous interest in the investigation of the widest variety of life forms. Darwin's ideas turned particular attention to forms of life in unusual and isolated environments for whatever scientific clues these could contribute to the great evolutionary debate.

Against this background, two developments, with direct relevance to the history of SAMS, set the scene for the origins of marine sciences: the opening of the first dedicated marine station in Naples in 1875, and the Challenger Expedition between 1872 and 1876.


Marine Stations

Anton-DohrnIn 19th century Europe, life in the sea fascinated the general public, and since the late 1840s guided tours to the shore for amateur collectors and visits to seaside aquaria were well established in Britain. This popularity led to the establishment of several large public aquaria, including one at London Zoo in 1853, for the public exhibition of marine specimens.

Although there were several facilities for marine biology in Europe, it is Anton Dohrn, the son of an educated and cosmopolitan industrialist, who is generally credited with conceiving the idea of marine stations to provide permanent locations and resources for the scientific study of marine life. Making use of his single-minded dedication and family wealth, allied with support from scientists throughout Europe, Dohrn persuaded the somewhat bemused city authorities to allow the establishment of the world's first marine station, the Stazione Zoologica, on the shoreline of the Bay of Naples in 1875.

With direct access to the rich marine fauna and pristine waters of the Bay of Naples, the Stazione provided well-equipped laboratories, flowing seawater, holding tanks, and dedicated local staff to support the work of what soon became a great marine observatory. The Stazione, an immediate success, was funded from payments due from visiting scientists, the sale of specimens, and entrance fees to the public aquarium. It further attracted the interest and investment of industry and governments. A scientific journal and series of review monographs published the results of the work of the Stazione. Exhibitions, lectures and demonstrations were provided for the public at large and for the training of students and special interest groups such as naval officers.

The scientific principles on which the Stazione Zoologica was established, and the funding mechanisms put in place to maintain it, set the framework for the rapid expansion of marine stations throughout the world in the closing decades of the 19th century. Within a couple of decades major marine laboratories were established by most of the countries of Europe as well as North America. In Britain, current marine laboratories that originate from this time include the Scottish Marine Station (today SAMS, 1884), the Gatty Marine Laboratory (University of St Andrews, 1884), the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (Plymouth, 1884), the Port Erin Marine Biological Station (University of Liverpool, 1892 but closed in 2006), the Dove Marine Laboratory (University of Newcastle, 1897), the Fisheries Research Laboratory (Aberdeen, 1899), and the Bangor Marine Station (University of Belfast, 1903).


The Challenger Expedition

Just prior to the founding of the Stazione Zoologica in December 1872, with all the bravado and confidence of the late Victorians, HMS Challenger, a British naval corvette of 2306 tons, stripped of her guns and loaded with scientific equipment, set out to cruise around the world to observe:-  

  • the physical conditions of the sea in the great ocean basins
  • the chemical composition of seawater at all depths in the ocean
  • the physical and chemical characteristics of the sea floor deposits and the nature of their origin, and
  • the distribution of organic life at all depths in the sea and on the sea floor.

By current standards, the Challenger remit seems impossibly over-ambitious, but it continues to set the scale and direction for marine science generally.

Charles-Wyville-ThomsonOver the next four years, Challenger travelled 127,500 km through the world's oceans, executing the greatest programme of soundings and sampling yet undertaken. The expedition discovered 4717 new marine species, and sounded the Marianas Trench to a depth of 8185 m. The scientific party was led by Dr (later Sir) Charles Wyville Thomson, and included a Canadian-born Scotsman, Dr (later Sir) John Murray, who was to become the founding father for SAMS. In 1877, after the return of the Challenger, an office was founded in Edinburgh to process the samples from the expedition and to publish its results. John Murray became director and edited the seminal 50-volume Expedition Reports. Of the five scientists participating in the expedition, three were Scottish (Thomson, Murray and John Young Buchanan), one English (Henry Nottidge Moseley), and one German (Rudolf von Willemoes-Suhm).


The founding and early history of the Association

John-MurrayIn 1867 and 1868 Anton Dohrn, the founder of the Stazione Zoologica, had visited David Robertson, the 'Cumbrae Naturalist', a largely self-educated and highly regarded amateur naturalist, knowledgeable and interested in marine biology, to conduct marine biological studies on the west coast of Scotland. It is likely that during this time the two men discussed the rationale and ethos for prospective marine stations. David Robertson later became the man most credited with the move of the Ark from Granton and its re-estabishment as a laboratory on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Clyde in 1885. We also know that Dohrn carried back with him to Naples a design for a portable marine aquarium, arising from his contacts with Robertson, that he made up and took to Messina in 1868. In 1884 Sir John Murray, entrusted with funds raised at the Fisheries Exhibition in Edinburgh of 1882 and with the financial and practical support of many academic and business associates, declared open the Scottish Marine Station at Granton onboard an old lighter, the Ark, and endowed it with the library of Wyville Thomson. Thus, the exploratory vision, scientific impetus and resources arising from the Challenger expedition led directly to the establishment of a dedicated centre for research into the marine environment and its living inhabitants. It was to be the founding event of an Association that has persisted, adapting and growing over a period of 120 years, and that entered a new phase of development in the year 2004. In 1885 the Ark was moved to Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Clyde at the west coast of Scotland, and the Granton station eventually closed in 1903. In 1894, the Cumbrae Naturalist David Robertson founded a committee to build a marine station in Millport, and took over the Ark. The Millport Marine Biological Station was opened in 1897 by Sir John Murray. In 1904, the Association received the oceanographer and explorer, William Speirs Bruce on board the Scotia, returning from his successful, but largely ignored, expedition to the Antarctic.

Records of the activities of staff and visitors of the Association have been meticulously maintained in the form of annual reports and scientific publications in a continuous series extending back to the first days of the Granton Station in 1884. They can be accessed in the Association's library at Dunstaffnage. Over such a period of time in any field of science, some lines of investigation reach their natural conclusion or cease to be useful, while others arise and take their place as new methods become available and new needs are recognised. Many themes of investigation and activity fundamental to the Association, however, can be traced from the earliest beginnings to the present time. The history of the Association reveals the antecedents of much of the research currently important in the work of the station.

Author: Professor Peter Boyle


List of major office bearers of the organisation

Chairman of Committee
1894 – 1900        George M’Crie

1901 – 1906  James F Gemmill MA MD
1907 – 1911  Henry Barr BL
1912 – 1932  Sir Archibald McInnes Shaw LLD
1932 – 1944  Emeritus Professor F O Bower FRS FRSE
1944 – 1950  Emeritus Prof Sir John Graham Kerr LLD FRS MP
1950 – 1968  Professor Sir Charles Maurice Yonge CBE DSc FRSE FRS
1968 – 1974  Professor V C Wynne-Edwards CBE FRSC FRS
1974 – 1979  Professor David R Newth FRSE
1980 – 1985  Professor F G T Holliday CBE FRSE
1986 – 1988  Professor Sir William DP Stewart FRSE FRS
1988 – 1993  Professor Alasdair D McIntyre CBE DSc FRSE
1993 – 2000  Professor Sir David C Smith FRSE FRS FLS
2000 – 2004  Dr Ian Graham-Bryce FRSE CBE
2004 – 2008  Professor Sir John P Arbuthnott FRSE FRCPSG FMedSci FRCPath
2008 – 2012  Professor Andrew Hamnett DL DPhil Hon DSc CChem FRSC FRSE
2012 –          Professor Geoffrey Boulton OBE FRSE FRS

1905 – 1907   Stephen Pace
1908 – 1949   Richard Elmhirst (until 1933 as ‘Superintendent’)
1949 - 1956   Ebenezer Ford OBE FRSE (obituary in JMBA 55: 255-260)
1957 - 1968   Professor Clifford H Mortimer DSc FRSE FRS
1968 - 1987   Professor Ronald I Currie CBE FRSE FIBiol
1987 - 1995   Professor Jack B L Matthews DPhil FRSA FRSE
1995 - 2008   Professor Graham B Shimmield FRSE FIBiol
2008 - 2014   Professor Laurence Mee FRSC CChem
2015 -           Professor Nicolas Owens


Timeline of SAMS history

With support from the Royal Meteorological Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, John Murray develops plans to open a marine station in Scotland and secures funds from the Fisheries Exhibition and private donors.

Murray moors a canal barge called The Ark in a sea-flooded quarry in Granton near Edinburgh, converts it into a floating laboratory, appoints three staff and develops an onshore building into a marine science library. The Ark has accommodation for seven. A first research vessel, the Mermaid, is donated.

Professor Ernst Haeckel from the University of Jena, Germany, officially opens The Ark as the Scottish Marine Station, the first permanent marine laboratory in the country. After receiving funds from the Crown in autumn, it styles itself the Royal Scottish Marine Station. Students working at the Station include the future polar explorers Fridtjof Nansen and William Speirs Bruce. 


In June, the Ark is brought from Granton to the Clyde and drawn up in a corner of Millport Bay. Here scores of scientists study the fauna, flora and physico-chemical conditions of the Clyde sea area over the coming decades.

The Cumbrae naturalist David Robertson (1806-1896) forms a committee to build a land-based marine station in Millport on the Isle of Great Cumbrae in the Clyde near Keppel Pier. The committee begins fundraising and takes over The Ark  from John Murray. The Robertson Museum opens, attracting annually over 6,000 visitors. The Granton facilities remain operational until 1903.

17 May 1897
John Murray opens the Millport Marine Biological Station, built at a cost of £1,500. In November the first constitution for the organisation is drawn up.

20 Dec 1900
A great storm destroys The Ark.

On 15 January, The Marine Biological Association of the West of Scotland is set up as a membership organisation. Classes for teachers begin.

Through the energy of Dr James F Gemmill and the generosity of James Coats, a wing is added to the station. The facility now consists of a 30 x 75 ft two floor laboratory building with a 30 ft wing and supplied with fresh sea water, gas, electric light and power. The station also contains a public museum and aquarium as well as a library with ca 1,500 volumes and 2,000 pamphlets. Additionally, the station is supplied with research vessels. The station has a class room with 36 seats and a research room.

21 July 1904
On return from the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, RV Scotia visits the station where Sir John Murray presents the expedition leader, William Speirs Bruce, with the Gold Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

The Association becomes a limited liability company and is now called the Scottish Marine Biological Association. For the first time the constitution includes educational objectives alongside research. John Murray is killed in a car accident.

1922 - 1966
The Development Commission provides a state grant for research to the Association.

Sheina Marshall and A.P. Orr begin a 39-year-long research collaboration that establishes fundamental principles of biological oceanography.


Intensive studies are underway into the food chains on which the herring depends, from nutrients to diatoms and on to copepods, the adult herring's chief food species. Also the spawning and life cycle of herring in the Clyde are being investigated. Other studies investigate biofouling of timber and sea urchin development.

Some staff join the military and the Royal Navy uses the station facilities. Research supports the war effort with practical projects, eg the production of agar from local seaweeds and the development of anti-fouling paints. Plankton is being investigated for its potential to avert food shortages.

The Challenger Society meeting at the station addresses issues of food supplies from the sea and the prospects of fish and shellfish cultivation.

The Association takes over the Oceanographic Laboratory in Edinburgh including the Continuous Plankton Recorder surveys to monitor long-term changes in ocean biology. Investigations into the use of television underwater begin.

Difficulties emerge in recruiting and retaining staff on Cumbrae. Consideration is given to developing a mainland site.

With funding from the newly created Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) a new laboratory is built at Dunstaffnage and the Association relocates. The Millport facilities are taken over by the University of London. The Oceanographic Laboratory transfers to NERC and is moved to Plymouth where it becomes eventually the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

A scientific diving unit is established, that has since developed into the National Facility for Scientific Diving.

A new era of deep-sea research is established with world-leading expertise in deep-sea fish and fisheries and benthic biodiversity.

A new aquaculture facility allows more research into shellfish aquaculture, and supports developing expertise in the environmental impacts of aquaculture.

NERC relocates a large collection of marine algae and protozoa to Oban from Cambridge University.

Two different organisations operate at Dunstaffnage: the Association and the NERC-operated Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory. Research focuses on water column and sediment processes, predator prey studies, deep sea biology, marine microbiology and aquaculture.

To reflect the breadth of research topics the Association changes its name to the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS).

SAMS becomes a partner in the project to create a collegiate university for the Highlands and Islands (UHI).

Arrival of the first seven UHI PhD students at SAMS.

The first cohort of UHI undergraduate students arrives to study for a BSc (Hons) Marine Science degree at SAMS. A dedicated deep-sea lander development facility is built.

A new NERC funded research programme focusing on Northern Seas paves the way for SAMS to become the premier Arctic research organisation in the UK. Full management of all activities reverts to SAMS after the NERC centre is disbanded.

HRH The Princess Royal opens new laboratory facilities later named the Sir John Murray Building. The freshwater section of the Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa moves to SAMS creating Europe’s largest and the world’s most diverse collection of living algae and protists.

Baroness Susan Greenfield opens the European Centre for Marine Biotechnology as an incubator facility for new companies. In subsequent years two tenant companies, Aquapharm and GlycoMar, begin to flourish and fill the facility.

SAMS adds an Arctic Studies strand to the BSc (Hons) Marine Science, sending students for one or two semesters to study at the University Centre on Svalbard. Responding to public need, SAMS begins research into marine policy and governance.

Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, opens a large new education building dedicated to Sheina Marshall.

2 February 2011
The University of the Highlands and Islands is formally established, aiming to have a transformational impact on the development and prospects of the region, its people and its communities.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise complete the building of Malin House as the first building of the European Marine Science Park adjacent to SAMS, aiming to create an international centre of excellence.

SAMS becomes the Associate Institute for Marine Science of the United Nations University. The Ocean Explorer Centre opens.

Another account of our history

In 1882 a fisheries exhibition was held in Edinburgh to discuss the state of knowledge of the region’s fisheries. This was followed by the Great Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883 that brought these matters to the world stage. There were already concerns about the state of stocks and the lack of knowledge of the sea’s biology. The Great Exhibition, together with the pioneering Challenger Expedition, helped fuel interest in the sea amongst the growing body of Victorian natural scientists. The Scottish Meteorological Society decided to spend some of the £ 1,400 left over from the Edinburgh expedition to establish a zoological station for marine research. They went cap in hand to the government for funding but their proposal was rejected. Fortunately, Dr (later Sir) John Murray, the entrepreneurial curator of the Challenger Expedition and editor of its reports, decided to fund the venture himself – on the condition that £250 was released every year from the fisheries fund to match his own generosity.

The Scottish Marine Station was founded by Murray in 1884 with a first donation of £50 from Queen Victoria. It grew quickly and within three years a new laboratory was created in Millport, Great Cumbrae, largely inspired by the naturalist David Robertson.  It wasn’t easy to keep the dream alive but in 1900, the Marine Biological Association of the West of Scotland was founded and this was reconstituted as the Scottish Marine Biological Association in 1914 and as the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) on 1 July 1992. During its long history, it has had to adapt many times, including the major move from Millport to Oban in 1970.  It has spawned several other major institutions, including the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science. SAMS has been home for many illustrious scientists and pioneering research expeditions. It has remained independent, innovative and increasingly international.

In the recent past, under the guidance of Professor Graham Shimmield (SAMS Director 1996-2008), SAMS became increasingly entrepreneurial, engaging with a wide range of issues of the day, benefitting from an upsurge in public funding for science and from a reawakening of the importance of the sea to the Scottish economy. The 'Sir John Murray' building, which houses the Association's major research laboratories, was built in 2004 and a very successful wing was dedicated to incubating new companies dedicated to marine biotechnology. This European Centre for Marine Biotechnology has been a resounding success and companies such as Aquapharm and Glycomar are now ready to expand into new facilities to be established alongside SAMS in Highland and Islands Enterprise’s new European Marine Science Park. In 2009, under the directorship of Professor Laurence Mee, a new £7M teaching building named after Sheina Marshall was added to the estate.


Professor Jack Mathews (SAMS Director 1987-95) about the partnership with UHI

Early in my career, when I was at the SMBA's Oceanographic Laboratory in Edinburgh, I was granted leave to do some experimental work on Calanus at Millport, working alongside Sheina Marshall, which was a great privilege that Jane and I fondly remember. Years later, after I returned to SMBA and when NERC was having to consider seriously the position of the grant-aided institutions, the Highlands and Islands Development Board published Sir Graham Hills' report on a potential University for, of and in the Highlands and Islands including Argyll, although it was noted that the county did not have a college ready to be a potential partner. Council of the SMBA (soon to become SAMS) agreed that affiliation of the Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory with the new body should be considered on three grounds: first, because it was unthinkable that a university could be created in the H & I without a strong element of marine science in the curriculum; secondly that none of the other partners had a strong research ethos, while SMBA/SAMS had an established record of postgraduate activity and an international reputation in marine scientific research; and thirdly we would fill the space in Argyll most appropriately.

SAMS became a full partner in the UHI Project in 1992, and immediately started to develop a full four-year honours course in marine science; this received preliminary approval from the UHI Board in 1995, which gave me much pleasure just before I retired as Director. The opening now of the Sheina Marshall Building to accommodate what has become a truly comprehensive education in all branches of marine science is a thrilling outcome for me.


Notes on Oban as a location for marine research

August 1868: Charles Wyville Thomson's expedition aboard HMS Lightning to explore ocean depths NW of the British Isles leaves from Oban. Despite poor weather sufficient evidence emerges to throw very serious doubt on Edward Forbes’ azoic theory. (This theory is finally conclusively disproved a year later during the HMS Porcupine expedition again under Charles Wyville Thomson's leadership.) The findings suggest that animals are likely to live at all depths in the oceans – which has since been confirmed.

1881: James Cossart Ewart FRS operates a zoological laboratory in Oban working on invertebrate nervous systems. John Murray leads a Challenger-follow-on expedition aboard the HMS Triton to the newly named Wyville Thomson Ridge. The expedition returns to Oban. 

contact details

SAMS, Scottish Marine Institute
Oban, Argyll PA37 1QA, UK

T: +44 (0) 1631 559 000
F: +44 (0) 1631 559 001

Director: Professor Nick Owens
President: Professor Geoffrey Boulton

Contact us
Scottish Marine Institute
Oban, Argyll, PA37 1QA
T: 01631 559000
F: 01631 559001