Development in Naples

By Flannery, Maura C. | The American Biology Teacher, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Development in Naples


Flannery, Maura C., The American Biology Teacher


Many people take their vacations in August, so they have something to look forward to throughout the summer. I, on the other hand, was "forced" to go to Italy in May, though I have to admit it was a great way to start the summer. I was invited to a workshop on "Graphing Genes, Cells and Embryos" held at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples. The venue alone was enough to get me to hop on a plane; this research facility and aquarium is right on the Bay of Naples, within site of Mount Vesuvius. But the Stazione's rich history was the real draw. It's difficult to read the annals of biology without finding references to this institution.

The Stazione

Two of my favorite references are in the memoirs of Richard Goldschmidt (1956) and Evelyn Hutchinson (1979). Goldschmidt focuses on the work of many of his forerunners and contemporaries, including Theodor Boveri and Hans Driesch who did some of their most significant research in cell biology at the Stazione. Goldschmidt is more interested in the work than in the location, while Hutchinson is very much taken with the whole Neapolitan scene and writes much about the people, churches, and traditions of Naples and the surrounding area. He was particularly fascinated by legends surrounding a relic of the blood of the martyr Saint Januarius. It is supposed to liquefy each year on his feast day. Hutchinson goes into some detail on the history of this phenomenon and the evidence for and against it. He was disappointed that his firsthand look at the relic couldn't give him conclusive proof either way. I should add, however, that Hutchinson didn't spend all his time in churches and festivals, he also used the Stazione's facilities to study cephalopod physiology.

The Stazione Zoologica was founded by the German biologist Anton Dohrn in 1872. He was drawn to Naples because of the rich marine life in its bay and because it was a cosmopolitan city that attracted a wide range of visitors. In other words, it provided a perfect setting for biologists. From the beginning, it was an international endeavor. The first scientists arrived it 1873 and they were from Germany, the United Kingdom, Russian, Italy, and the Netherlands. The list of distinguished biologists who have worked at the Stazione is impressive. It includes such stars of cell biology as Boveri and E. B. Wilson, the microbiologist Robert Koch, the developmental biologists Driesch and Jacques Loeb, as well as the geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, etc. The list is much too long to present here, but Bernardino Fantini richly describes the Stazione's history and includes descriptions of the work of many noted biologists of the past and present (http://www.szn.it/acty99web/acty014.htm).

We were reminded of this history at the workshop's opening reception in the Stazione's library. Christiane Groeben, the Curator of the History of Science Unit at the Stazione, described the library murals painted just after the building was erected in 1873. As she discusses in her book on the murals (2000), they are the work of Dohrn's friend Hans von Marees, a German painter who was assisted by the artist and architect Adolf Hildebrand who designed the Stazione itself. Interestingly, the murals focus less on science than on Neapolitan life. One pictures Dohrn, von Marees, and their friends sharing a carafe of wine. There are two with fisherman on the Bay of Naples and two of the orange groves found in the area. However, on either side of the room there are busts of Karl Ernst von Baer and Charles Darwin, as well as small panels filled with plants and sea life. It's a lovely room that has been beautifully restored and still serves as a library for historical works and an exhibit area, with some wonderful specimens, drawings, and equipment from the archives. It was a fitting place to begin the workshop which combined presentations on the history and philosophy of science with those on the most up-to-date scientific research. …

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