Marine Biological Association, Plymouth, England

The Citadel Hill Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Hoe

The Citadel Hill Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Hoe, by Robert Cutts. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (MBA) is a British learned society which works in the field of the marine biological sciences. It was founded in 1884; its original objectives were to gain a better understanding of fish populations, especially in relation to fishing and fears of over-exploitation of the seas, and to study the physiology of invertebrate animals. The MBA’s first President was Thomas H. Huxley, and E. Ray Lankester acted at the Association’s Honorary Secretary. Today, the MBA’s objectives have been widened and the Association more generally seeks to “promote scientific research into all aspects of life in the sea, including the environment on which it depends, and to disseminate to the public the knowledge gained.”

The MBA opened in 1888 on Plymouth Hoe, where it is still located in the original Laboratory, though the building has been expanded and modernized. The choice of location for the MBA was very important, as one of the Laboratory’s requirements was to be able to pump sea-water. This was achieved via a well which is situated on the Hoe’s foreshore, beneath the Laboratory. From the beginning, the MBA opened its tank rooms to the public and it continued to do so until 1998, when the collection was transferred to the new National Marine Aquarium nearby.

Scientific staff at the MBA have always been at the forefront of the study of the marine environment. Alongside resident scientific staff, the MBA has always hosted and collaborated with visiting researchers. Seven Nobel laureates have conducted research there, in fields including medicine, physiology and chemistry. The MBA’s current research programme includes work on cell physiology, behavioural ecology, climate change and marine diversity. The MBA works with many national and international universities to train the next generation of marine biologists and support the marine biological community.

The MBA has published a scientific journal, the Journal of the Marine Biological Association, since 1887. In its current format, this is a peer-reviewed, international science journal covering all aspects of marine biology.

The MBA is the custodian of the collections of the National Marine Biological Library (NMBL), which was founded in 1887 to support the research work of the Association. Today, the NMBL is constituted of the MBA’s library and archive collections, and its staff provide information services to support research. The collections are one of the world’s largest in the field; they comprise an up-to-date selection of books and journals, and a sizeable historical collection which includes expedition reports from all over the world, old books (dating back to 1554), conference proceedings and the personal libraries of several past MBA researchers. The library also holds long runs of periodicals and grey literature from all over the world. The MBA Archive Collection constitutes a unique resource which documents not only the MBA’s institutional history, but also the evolution of the marine biological sciences in Great Britain and beyond. Items in the archives include personal papers and letters, documents, photographs, drawings, lantern slides and microscope slides.

The MBA also has a collection of scientific instruments and objects. The collection includes one of only five extant Levin-Wyman ergometers (invented at the MBA) which measure work done by muscles, and a sledge, skis poles and an ice axe used by MBA biologist E. W. Nelson on the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition (Terra Nova). These instruments and objects can often be linked to specific scientific research or MBA researchers, and to material held in the MBA Archive Collection. The history of the objects and the science which they enabled is significant within the context of the history of marine biology and biological sciences more generally.

Contact details:

The Marine Biological Association of the UK
The Laboratory
Citadel Hill
Plymouth PL1 2PB

T: 01752 633 207

The NMBL is located at the same address, and its website is To contact the NMBL directly, please call 01752 633 266 or email

How to visit:

The MBA is primarily a membership organisation, and access to the NMBL is a benefit of membership. Alternatively, one-off access can be specially arranged through the MBA Membership Secretary ( Please see here for further information:

From Plymouth’s mainline station or the city centre, follow signs to Plymouth Hoe. The MBA is located on the eastern side of the Hoe, near the Royal Citadel.

Further reading:

Allen, E.J. and Harvey, H.W. (1928) “The Laboratory of The Marine Biological Association at Plymouth.” Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 15 (3): 735-752. (Available for download here: <

Heape, W. (1887) “Description of the laboratory of the Marine Biological Association at Plymouth.” Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 1 (Old Series): 96-104. (Available for download here:

Southward, A.J. and Roberts, E.K. (1984)”The Marine Biological Association 1884-1984: One hundred years of marine research” Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, 116: 155-199. (This article was also published as an Occasional Publication of the MBA and is available here:

Note: Revised article by Anne-Flore Laloe. Original article by Joan Price.

Met Office, Exeter, England

Panorama of the new UKMO building in Exeter, taken 8 February 2005

Panorama of the new UKMO building in Exeter, taken 8 February 2005, by William M. Connolley. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

The British Meteorological Office was originally set up under Robert Fitzroy, ex-captain of HMS Beagle, as a service to mariners. After a disastrous storm in 1859 he established a network of fifteen coastal stations which gave warnings of approaching storms, and this eventually led to the daily shipping forecast. Developments in electric telegraphy and the expansion of the observational network meant that regular weather forecasts could be provided for the general public. Their most crucial forecast was that for D-Day. Weather forecasts still play a vital role in the success of military operations and provide essential information for the RAF and so the Met Office is an executive agency of the Ministry of Defence. More recently it has started to give warnings about weather conditions which may affect people’s health and uses Doppler radar to warn of the likelihood of floods. In 2003 the Met Office moved from Bracknell to Exeter, where the Hadley Centre is devoted to climate prediction and research. A network of official climate stations 40km apart continues to provide daily observations.

The Met Office headquarters contain a library, open to everyone, and a display of meteorological equipment. Half a mile away, the National Meteorological Archive shares premises with the Devon Record Office. It holds a number of rare books on meteorology on behalf of the Royal Meteorological Society. These include a 1282 manuscript of Albert Magnus’ book De Negotio Naturali, a sixteenth century copy of Aristotle’s Meteorologica, some of Robert Boyle’s published work and Daniel Defoe’s description of the Great Storm of 1703. Their archive includes many private weather diaries made by enthusiastic amateurs, dating back to 1730 as well as descriptions and illustrations of extreme weather conditions, including ball lightning.

The main entrance to the Exeter Met Office

The main entrance to the Exeter Met Office, by Richard Knights. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Met Office has been a harbinger of economic expansion to Exeter and many parts of Devon.

They have numerous weather logs made by both merchant and naval ships all over the world. These include Beaufort’s first use of the wind scale now bearing his name, and some from historic voyages to the Antarctic. They hold a great many climate returns and registers of meteorological observations as well as autographic records for approximately 1,000 sites dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. They also have a selection of historic images featuring old equipment, observers and observation sites. The archive can be used by academics and members of the public but it is advisable to book in advance and read fact sheet 12 on their website (see below).

Directions: Their headquarters are close to Junction 29 of the M5 as it passes Exeter. Come off the motorway and drive in the direction of the City Centre. Almost immediately you will soon see directions to turn right at a set of traffic lights. To visit the archives turn left at the same traffic lights in the direction of Sowton Industrial Estate. Take the first turning right into Kestrel Way and keep turning right until you reach Great Moor House. Exeter St David’s mainline train station is on the opposite side of the city and although the journey can be done by taking two buses, it will take more than half an hour.

Further information

Website: Met Office – National Meteorological Archive

Met Office Factsheet: 12. National Meteorological Archive [pdf, 3Mb].
Description: In April 1914, at a meeting of the Meteorological Committee, the Met Office, then called The Meteorological Office, accepted responsibility of custodian of appropriate Public Records. To this day the archive remains part of the Met Office.

Address: FitzRoy Road, Exeter, Devon EX1 3PB, UK

Archive address: Great Moor House, Bittern Road, Exeter EX2 7NL, UK

Marine Biological Association, Plymouth, England

Out of date

This article has been superseded by a more up-to-date version at

The Citadel Hill Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Hoe

The Citadel Hill Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Hoe, by Robert Cutts. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The Marine Biological Association is one of the oldest learned institutions west of Bristol. Its laboratories are tucked away in a corner of the Royal Citadel on the eastern end of Plymouth Hoe. Founded in 1884, the MBA is one of the UK’s leading research institutes. Its building has spectacular views of Plymouth Sound and shares many features with the even more illustrious laboratory in Naples. The association was set up to study living marine live, both out of scientific interest and to learn about habits and population of fished fish. Much of the latter work has gone to other laboratories. Their aquarium is now part of the nearby National Marine Aquarium, which is a big visitor attraction. In addition to their own work, the laboratories always attract visiting research workers, including 13 Nobel Prize winners and 170 Fellows of the Royal Society. Some of these come from other disciplines, particularly physiology. From its inception, the association has always been forward thinking: providing Easter courses for university students, offering members one week’s laboratory space per annum free, and employing some early women scientists. In 1967 their work was focussed on the Torrey Canyon oil spill. They have monitored pollution and plankton for many years and have always had a research vessel.

Their library is probably the most complete in this country in its coverage of marine biology and oceanography. As well as academic journals and special collections, it also contains the personal libraries of several eminent members. Visiting research workers have donated bound reprints of their work. As a result their earliest book in the library dates from 1554, they have a complete set of Nature and their records of the British Association go back to 1864. They have many bound volumes of many expedition reports, including some to the Antarctic and others covering the marine biology of specific areas of the world. They also hold considerable quantities of ‘grey’ papers, which have not been published.

The NMBL also has a large amount of archival material which is on a database and has been catalogued in three sections:

  • Institutional papers of the MBA and the Plymouth Laboratory
  • Personal and scientific documents of 50 staff and researchers with close links
  • The correspondence of E.T.Browne from 1892-1937- for its intrinsic interest and to test the ability of the database.

Their material includes watercolours, early and aerial photographs, coloured glass slides and charts. Most interest is in their early fish records and their long term monitoring.

Directions: Please contact the librarian before a visit if you are not already a member. Membership of the MBA cost from £30 /annum. A pedestrian walkway leads from Plymouth’s mainline station to the Hoe. If travelling by road, follow signs to the City Centre until you see signs for Plymouth Hoe. Drive up past the Citadel and the entrance road is on the left just as you see the sea.

Further information

Website: National Marine Biological Library (NMBL)

Address: The Laboratory, Citadel Hill, PLYMOUTH PL1 2PB United Kingdom

Darwin and Glen Roy, Scotland

This article is © The Darwin Correspondence Project, University of Cambridge and is used with permission. The original article appears at along with links to the full text of Darwin letters concerning Glen Roy. The Darwin Project Glen Roy page also has a link to historian Martin Rudwick’s field guide to Glen Roy.

Woodcut showing the 'Parallel Roads' on either side of Glen Roy, from Darwin's 1839 paper.

Woodcut showing the 'Parallel Roads' on either side of Glen Roy, from Darwin's 1839 paper.

Although Darwin was best known for his geological work in South America and other remote Beagle destinations, he made one noteworthy attempt to explain a puzzling feature of British geology. In 1838, two years after returning from the voyage, he travelled to the Scottish Highlands to study the so-called parallel roads of Glen Roy.

These ‘roads’ were horizontal terraces on either side of a valley called Glen Roy, and though earlier visitors had supposed that they must be ancient hand-built features, geologists in the last two decades had declared them to be of natural origin. Two geologists, John MacCulloch and Thomas Dick Lauder, proposed in the late 1810s that the roads had been cut into the hillsides by standing water, and were the beaches of a former highland lake that had once filled the valley. They supposed the water in the lake to have stood at several distinct levels, each corresponding to the level of one of the roads.

Darwin’s interest in the parallel roads was piqued by his previous study of a series of terraces at Coquimbo, Chile, which he believed were former marine beaches that had since been pushed above sea level by the bulging of the earth beneath South America. He went to Scotland in hopes of demonstrating that the Glen Roy roads were also former sea beaches. If this were the case, their existence would indicate that Scotland had been elevated from the sea in a manner similar to the process he believed had lifted the continent of South America. In each case, the fact that the terraces remained essentially level indicated to Darwin that tectonic movements could be gradual and equable (as the upright pillars of the temple at Serapis had famously suggested to Charles Lyell).

In 1839 Darwin read a paper on the parallel roads to the Royal Society of London. He dismissed the notion that they were former lake beaches on the grounds that there was no satisfactory explanation for the temporary damming of Glen Roy, which must have occurred for the valley to fill with water and then be emptied. Instead, he advanced his theory: ‘the whole country has been slowly elevated, the movements having been interrupted by as many periods of rest as there are shelves.’ The roads were of marine origin, and each road represented a former stage in Scotland’s emergence from the sea.

While Darwin was thus able to avoid conjecturing about an event that could have dammed Glen Roy, he instead had to explain why the sea had left no marine fossils on the sides of the glen and why it had not cut similar terraces on other hillsides across Scotland. He argued that the preservation of both fossils and old sea beaches should be considered the exception rather than the rule. For instance, Darwin pointed to a number of locations, ranging from his home county of Shropshire to the coasts of Scandinavia, where exposed deposits of undoubted marine origin had been found not to contain any marine shells, presumably because they had been dissolved by acidified rain. Likewise, he pointed out that durable terraces like the roads might have been formed only where a special combination of currents and tides were acting on a coastline of a particular geological composition.

Scarcely had Darwin’s Glen Roy paper appeared in print than the Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz proposed an explanation for the roads that had not been considered by Lauder, MacCulloch, or Darwin. Agassiz was convinced that the earth had formerly experienced an ‘epoch of great cold’, and that glaciers had once been much more widespread across Europe. In 1840 he toured locations in Britain with many leading geologists, pointing out how many familiar phenomena could be reinterpreted with reference to the former action of glaciers. In the case of Glen Roy, Agassiz provided the missing component of the lake-beach theory of the formation of the parallel roads. A wall of ice extending across the foot of the valley could have dammed Glen Roy and formed a glacial lake like those seen in the present-day Alps.

In the hands of Agassiz and others in the succeeding decades, glacial theory prompted geologists to reappraise much more than the terraces at Glen Roy. Darwin was resistant to the glacial explanation for the parallel roads, even as he admitted the action of ice sheets elsewhere. On his last ever geological field trip, a return visit to North Wales in 1842, Darwin wrote that the signs of glacial action in the valley of Cwm Idwal could not have been more obvious ‘if it had still been filled by a glacier.’ Yet in letters written as late as 1861, Darwin continued to defend, albeit halfheartedly, the marine theory of the formation of the parallel roads (see sidebar to the right on the original Darwin Correspondence Project’s Darwin and Glen Roy page). Darwin was later to write, notoriously, in his autobiographical ‘Recollections’ that his paper on Glen Roy was a great failure: ‘and I am ashamed of it.’

Although Darwin eventually abandoned his original conclusions about Glen Roy, it is well worth trying to retrace Darwin’s footsteps there. To understand what led Darwin to ‘see’ what he saw in 1838 is to take a glimpse from the perspective of the young geologist when he was giving full expression to the theory of the earth that was his proudest product of the Beagle voyage.