University of Washington's first marine sciences summer session, forerunner of Friday Harbor Laboratories, begins in June 1904.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 10/12/2005
  • Essay 7507
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In June 1904, a dozen University of Washington students begin six weeks of marine biology field studies in the San Juan islands. Zoology Professor Trevor Kincaid (1872-1970) and Botany Professor Theodore C. Frye conduct informal, open-air sessions and supervise dredging and other research in island waters. Over the next 100 years, the informal summer session grows to become the UW Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL), a year-round research and education center whose scientists and students have produced many important biological discoveries.

When Trevor Kincaid entered the University of Washington in 1894, the university had just seven instructors -- only one in science. As the school expanded over the next decade, Kincaid became a lab assistant in his freshman year and an assistant professor of zoology upon graduating. In 1903, he set out to find a site for a marine biology field station for collecting specimens and teaching summer courses.

His choice, the remote port of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, was barely a generation old. Through the efforts of San Juan pioneer Edward D. Warbass (1825-1906), Friday Harbor had been designated county seat in 1873 when San Juan County was created, but significant settlement did not begin until the 1880s. Nevertheless, with an extraordinary richness and diversity of marine plants and invertebrates flourishing on vast tidelands exposed by large tidal fluctuations, Friday Harbor and the San Juans held many attractions for marine scientists.

Outdoor Laboratory

Town patriarch Warbass loaned Kincaid and his botanical colleague T. C. Frye his cabin on a point south of town for the first session in the summer of 1904. An advance party arrived on June 15 with furnishings for the cabin, darkroom equipment, and a rowboat. The dozen or so students slept in tents, while the laboratory was set up outdoors on a table under a fir tree. The students dredged for specimens off San Juan, Lopez, Orcas, and the smaller Wasp Islands. They also took excursions to the Roche Harbor lime works, Mt. Constitution on Orcas, and muddy False Bay on the southwest shore of San Juan, which is now a biological preserve administered by FHL.

After two years in Warbass's cabin, the summer program moved in 1906 to a cannery building at the 2005 location of the Cannery Landing shopping pier adjacent to the state ferry dock. The space was available because the cannery had suspended operations for lack of a sufficient supply of water. By 1908, formal courses were offered in Field Zoology, Field Botany (marine and terrestrial), Elementary Zoology, and Elementary Botany. Most of the summer students were high school or college teachers.

Friday Harbor civic leaders welcomed the summer scholars. In 1908, The Islander wrote:

"The county owes much to these unassuming and scholarly gentlemen [Kincaid and Frye], who have been the means of making this wonderfully attractive region known to a large number of cultured ladies and gentlemen, many of them prominent in educational work in large institutions of learning" (Mills).

When the cannery resumed operations, the marine field station moved in 1909 to four acres of land south of town donated by Andrew Newhall, a prominent Orcas Island lumber manufacturer and shipper who had recently retired to Friday Harbor. Permanent buildings were constructed (although students continued to live in tents) and the Puget Sound Marine Station opened in 1910. The name changed to Puget Sound Biological Station during World War I to avoid confusion with military "Marine Stations."

The Bug Station

By 1920, the Newhall site was too small for the growing Biological Station, and nearby water was becoming too polluted by sewage and cannery effluent for research purposes. For years, Frye, Kincaid, and other university officials had been eyeing the 484-acre military reservation at Point Caution (Military Point) on the north side of Friday Harbor. The Army established seven such reservations in the San Juans during the 1870s, but never used any. Finally on August 23, 1921, President Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) signed legislation granting the Point Caution tract to the university.

After water was piped in and basic facilities constructed, classes got underway at Point Caution in 1924. FHL still occupies the site, which has seen considerable additional construction in the intervening 80 years. Students still slept in tents, and along with classes enjoyed baseball and ping-pong games, rowboat trips and races, and weekend excursions. Frye encouraged dances and parties where they socialized with townspeople, who dubbed the lab the "bug station."

In 1930 the Biological Station became part of the new University of Washington Oceanographic Laboratories. By the 1950s, marine biology and oceanography were distinct disciplines and Friday Harbor Laboratories became a separate entity.

Ground-breaking Scientists

FHL's best-known scientist may have been Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), who joined the Zoology Department in 1945. Ray developed an introductory field course in marine biology and later developed and hosted the KCTS television series "Animals of the Seashore," filmed primarily around Friday Harbor and at FHL. Ray went on to become chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the first woman governor of Washington.

Over the years, FHL has made ground-breaking discoveries and produced thousands of important scientific publications. Lab scientists and students found, in local barnacles, the largest muscle cells of any animal, and, in sea slugs, the largest nerve cells. From the Puget Sound jellyfish Aequorea victoria researchers extracted and eventually cloned the luminescent protein aequorin and the fluorescent molecule GFP (green fluorescent protein), which have both played important roles in biomedical and genetic research.

Friday Harbor Laboratories celebrated its centennial at a ceremony on July 17, 2004.


Marge & Ted Mueller, The San Juan Islands Afoot & Afloat 3rd Ed. (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1995), 95; David Richardson, Pig War Islands (Eastsound: Orcas Publishing Company, 1971), 187, 223, 336; Claudia E. Mills and Colin O. Hermans, "Historical Centennial Timeline for the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories 1903-2005" Claudia E. Mills website accessed August 30, 2005 (; Fu-Shiang Chia, "The Bug Station," Friday Harbor Laboratories website accessed October 4, 2005 ( centsymp/bugstation.html); Deborah L. Illman, "Birth of the Friday Harbor Laboratories," University of Washington website accessed October 4, 2005 ( pathbreakers/1904a.html); "Global impacts of 'Bug Station's' Century of Research," July 19, 2004, San Juan Islander website accessed October 4, 2005 ( fh-uw_labs/100-years.shtml); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ray, Dixy Lee [1914-1994])" (by Paula Becker), (accessed October 4, 2005).

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