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Tuatara: Volume 1, Issue 1, September 1947

Life at the Plymouth Marine Station To-day

page 24

Life at the Plymouth Marine Station To-day

My first view of the Plymouth Marine Station was early last summer. It was a clear calm evening as I walked across The Hoe with an Egyptian zoologist, here to study plankton. There before us was the laboratory, a fine 3-storied building of white marble, placed just in front of the old Plymouth Citadel, and looking out to a glorious view of the broad Sound below.

The main front building, however, which one sees pictured on the covers of the Journal of the Marine Biological Association is by no means all; for behind is a second block, almost as large, housing the physiology department, the library, and the sale-of-specimens room; and beyond is a separate little building, the “Easter Class Room” used during the fortnightly vacation courses in marine biology for undergraduates.

The laboratory received several direct bomb hits, but by last summer the team of builders and painters who had been there for a year had repaired most of the research rooms. It was not until the winter following that the aquarium (where tanks had burst and flooded the ground floor in a raid) was reopened; whilst the rebuilding of the east wing, which used to be the director's home but is now an empty bombedout shell, has only recently begun. People there on the main night of the bombing give dramatic accounts of how Dr. Kemp, then Director, threw his energy into preventing the fire from spreading into the rest of the building and losing everything in his home as a result.

There are about a dozen on the permanent research staff; though half were in the services during the war, and last summer were just settling down at the laboratory again. Mr. Russell, the Director, with his cheery grin, is now resuming plankton work. D. P. Wilson I think of primarily as a photographer, though in the in-betweens of that and supervising the aquarium animals, he is having fun and games with the metamorphosis of polychaete larvae. Last summer I watched him print and develop photos of Physalia and other animals which later I saw in London at the Royal Photographic Society. In a room nearby, Nora Sproston was working indefatigably at fish parasites with an exuberance of enthusiasm. She was the sort who always found time to collect shy newcomers into her room for a chat and a cup of coffee, and yet was blithely producing a huge monograph on the world's monogenetic trematodes together with numerous shorter papers on other parasites. She is now in China.

The physiology block upstairs has rather a chemical and physical bias. Dr. Atkins, at its head, goes into profound details about light page 26 penetration and photoelectric cells—and leaves little notices around the department which provide much interest. Dr. Harvey, another F.R.S. nearby, is of the chatty, approachable type. He rather brought the house down at the common-room lunch table yesterday when he declared that a perambulator was much more convenient than a heavy rucksac when tramping—he'd tried it one holiday with great success. He is at present working out a simplified precision method for phosphate estimation in seawater.

Although each worker is largely on his own special line, with a happy lack of any feeling that research is being “directed” by others, there is a certain amount of underlying team-work in connection with plankton and fisheries problems, both biological and chemical.

As well as the permanent staff (of whom I've only mentioned the ones I have chiefly met), numerous visiting workers come and go. At the moment, this being the summer vacation, these workers are in the majority. For instance, young Hodgkin from Cambridge arrives with a car-full of cathode ray gear, and soon brings Pantin (and me) to see his set-up of a squid giant nerve fibre recording itself, an electrode plunged inside it by micromanipulators. Down in the physiology lab., Pantin, together with another research student and myself, have spread over most of the benches. Pantin and I are on anemones—largely smoked-drum work and low frequency stimulation effects. The other research student, a lass who has just graduated from Cambridge, is tackling hydroid regeneration—grafting oral cones and so forth; for which gloriously non-utilitarian sort of work the D.S.I.R. here cheerfully hand out two-year grants to promising young graduates to gain research experience without tying their future plans in any way.

A German from Glasgow is tackling skate sense-organs with cathode ray oscillograph. An earnest young Dane and his wife have been studying the rate of filter-feeding in mussels; two Indian students are on fisheries problems, and many others, from the most senior to the most junior workers, come for longer or shorter times. I have just looked through the list of “table-holders” for the last year. Of 72 workers, 14 were from London, 14 from English provincial universities, 12 from Cambridge, 1 from Oxford, and 10 from overseas.

I must not close without mentioning the 90ft. trawler, the “Sabella,” which since the war has replaced the old “Salpa.” It's a thrill going out on her and seeing the live Amphioxus being dredged from near the Eddystone, and Alcyonium and Antedon coming up in trawl-hauls, especially if you manage the trip without being sea-sick. For inshore work, the 30ft. launch “Gammarus” is used, and you meet Old Bill, who has been naturalist-collector for over 50 years, knows just where every beast occurs, and casually reels off scientific names in the broadest Devonshire.

page 26

Then there is the Hoe Garden House nearby, where Miss Geake has had chiefly laboratory people staying for the last generation or so—a happy, friendly place. In fact those adjectives describe life at “Plymouth” in general. While the lab. is not as large or grand as, for instance, the Cambridge Zoological Department, there is about it an easy and friendly informality, with everybody ready to help everyone, and with exciting work emerging around you, that makes a few months there extraordinarily pleasant.