the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences established a biological laboratory for training high school and college teachers. As biologists of that time worked out the consequences of Darwin’s theory of evolution, they often established their laboratories at the seashore, where there was an abundance of animals and plants for study year round. It is not surprising, then, that the Brooklyn Institute looked to the north shore of Long Island for a site for its biological laboratory. In 1889, John D. Jones gave land and buildings, formerly part of the Cold Spring Whaling Company on the southwest shore of Cold Spring Harbor, to the Institute. The first course—the General Course on Biology—at the new Biological Laboratory began on July 7, 1890, establishing education in the biological sciences as the Laboratory’s first mission.
It was not long before a second, long-lasting mission was established: research in genetics. It grew out of two events: the appointment, in 1898, of Charles Davenport, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, as director of the Laboratory, and the discovery in 1900 of Mendel’s work, carried out 35 years earlier. Mendel’s Laws provided the mechanisms for the variability that underlies evolution, and his work opened new possibilities for experimental studies of evolutionary biology. Davenport seized on the opportunity and proposed to the Carnegie Institute of Washington that it establish a genetics research program at Cold Spring Harbor. In June 1904, the Station for Experimental Evolution, later renamed the Department of Genetics, was formally opened by Hugo de Vries, one of the three rediscoverers of Mendel’s work. From this time until 1962, Cold Spring Harbor had two research institutions working side by side—the Biological Laboratory and the Carnegie Institute of Washington, Department of Genetics.
Scientists investigating evolution studied a variety of organisms. George Shull, in his studies of corn, achieved the first great discovery at Cold Spring Harbor in 1908. By studying the growth and yields of corn plants, he found that crossing purebred lines produced hybrid offspring that were stronger and more productive than plants produced by open pollination in the field. Shull’s discovery of hybrid vigor led to increased corn production and to a revolution in crop breeding.In the 1920, Albert Blakeslee demonstrated the phenomenon of polyploidy in his Cold Spring Harbor laboratory. Carleton MacDowell, who joined the research effort in 1914 and remained at Cold Spring Harbor until his retirement in 1948, began a study of the inheritance of leukemia in mice and established the C57BL strain of mice. And by studying the genetics of cancer in mice in 1916, Clarence Little, later the founder of the Jackson Laboratory in Maine, discovered that Japanese "waltzing" mice, but not other mouse strains, were susceptible to transplanted sarcomas. In 1924, Davenport appointed Reginald Harris as director of the Biological Laboratory. Harris began to change the Laboratory’s research program to focus on quantitative biology—physiology and biophysics in particular. Harris’ greatest legacy is the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology, begun in 1933, an annual event that continues as the premier meeting in the world for discussions of topics in molecular biology and genetics. The Symposium was the beginning of the Laboratory’s meetings program, which now includes 15 to 20 large, international scientific conferences a year.
Symposium also gave rise to the series of publications, Symposia on Quantitative Biology. The Symposia volumes contain many classic papers, and they quickly became required reading for many biologists. The publication of the Symposia volumes was the beginning of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, and marked the beginning of the Laboratory’s commitment to publishing scientific books. Today, the Press publishes a monograph series, laboratory manuals, three scientific journals—including Genes and Development—and books about the history of molecular biology and genetics.
The appointment in 1941 of Laboratory researcher Milislav Demerec as director of both the Biological Laboratory and the Department of Genetics signaled a new era of genetics research, one in which microorganisms were used to study the nature of the gene. Originally a Drosophila geneticist, Demerec turned to the study of bacteria and bacteriophages, and in 1945 encouraged Max Delbrück to initiate the first advanced course at the Laboratory—the Phage Course.
Each year the Laboratory offers 25 laboratory and lecture courses in the biological sciences. The courses have spawned numerous well-known laboratory manuals—the most notable being “Molecular Cloning,” familiarly referred to as “Maniatis,” and now, “Sambrook” (the primary authors of the first and second editions, respectively).
Alfred Hershey came to stay at Cold Spring Harbor in 1950. Two years later, he and Martha Chase performed one of the most famous experiments in modern biology, the "Waring-blender" experiment, which reinforced the earlier findings of Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty that genes were made of DNA and not protein. The discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, first described publicly by James Watson at the 1953 Symposium entitled "Viruses," heralded a new era in biology.