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An Introduction and Overview to the Bass Biological Laboratory Papers

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Original documents and recent essays provide an overview and introduction to the collection.

Scope and Content: (collection dates include 1931-1945 and 1980- present. Publications date to 1889) The Bass Biological Laboratory operated during the 1930s and 1940s, and was the first year-round collecting station in the region and the first co-educational research field station in Florida. The rescue and ongoing preservation of these documents has been a twenty-year process spearheaded by Mote scientist Dr. Ernest D. Estevez, beginning in 1989. These records provide valuable material for researchers on the biodiversity, coastal ecology, and socio-economic conditions of 1930-1940s Englewood, providing a valuable account of the Depression and pre-war years in rural Southwest Florida.

The Bass Laboratory collection includes varied correspondence, invoices, maps, permits, photographs, telegrams, field notes, ecological and meteorological data, species lists, personal papers and more. Topics covered in this collection include information on the fellows and scientists visiting the Bass Laboratory, the buildings and grounds of the Laboratory, the schooner, Virginia, John F. Bass Jr. and his family, and the employees and associates of the Bass Lab. The collection also includes extensive information on the flora and fauna of Englewood during the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the local environment. Research notes and field logs provide information and observations on Lemon Bay and the surrounding creeks. As Dr. Estevez notes, few accounts exist of Florida’s pre-development marine environment. The records in the Bass Biological Laboratory can help ecologists reconstruct the natural biodiversity, system structure, and function of Englewood in the 1930s.

Historical Note: In the 1930s, Englewood was a small outpost of civilization with its 200 residents swelling only slightly during sport fishing season. Venice was the nearest town, and contained the closest train station where supplies for the Lab came and went. The Bass Laboratory was founded by John F. Bass, Jr. in 1932, and had a profit-making subsidiary, or ‘scientific sales department,’ called the Zoological Research Supply Company. The Zoological Research Supply (ZRS) Company also dealt in shark products such as shark teeth jewelry, shark liver oil, shark skins, etc. For a brief period, these items were marketed under the name Genuine Shark Products Co. The ZRS also supplied specimens of all kinds to universities and laboratories throughout the country for research and dissection. The staff of the Lab consisted of John F. Bass, Jr., who served as the director and specialized in life histories, Stewart Springer, who studied Elasmobranchii, J. Lear Grimmer, who studied herpetology, Morris Fraser, whose focus was invertebrate hemacytology, Donald B. Powell, who focused on physiology, and Ferd Dalton, a collector. The entire staff and six additional laborers remained on duty year round. Financially, the Lab was founded with the help of an endowment from John F. Bass, Sr., and its income derived mainly from stocks, bonds, and real estate.

According to founder John F. Bass, Jr., the Bass Lab was located in a subtropical zone on the Gulf of Mexico. Nearby habitat included low sandy keys, high sandy scrub oak hammocks, tall grass near muck ponds, southern pine thickets, palmettos, meadows, marsh lands, cacti and dry lands. The area’s marine environment featured mud flats, oyster bars, sand, eel grass, projections of limestone formations, shallow bays and coves and deep channels. The mission statement of the Lab states that it was founded to “furnish research facilities to investigators in biological fields where the fauna, flora, and climate play an important role in the problem under observation.” The Bass Biological Laboratory was located on a 10-acre site on Lemon Bay with surrounding freshwater streams and ponds. The bay opens into the Gulf through Stump Pass and again at Placida Harbor, then connects with Gasparilla Sound and Charlotte Harbor. The Laboratory grounds included three one-story log laboratories, one known as the ‘Cookie House,’ two large frame storage houses, three log houses for staff and visiting investigators, one frame house used as a dining hall and dormitory for visiting investigators, administrative living quarters, a tool shop, a saltwater laboratory and other small buildings. In addition to the 54’ schooner, Virginia, the Lab also owned two launches, one 26’ and one 12’.

The Lab charged minimal room and board (a dollar a day) from visiting fellows and scientists, and no more than 12 visiting investigators lived at the Lab at any time. The Lab primarily focused on marine biology, ecology, invertebrate and vertebrate zoology, entomology, and parasitology. The Bass Lab was not a teaching facility, and provided no instruction to students. Fellowship applicants were expected to clearly define the problem they hoped to investigate, give a list of the equipment they needed, submit reprints or a bibliography, and were expected to contribute information to a key card index file of local flora and fauna while at the Lab in addition to providing a synopsis of their research when they left. In addition to accepting fellows and doing research in the greater Englewood area, Bass scientists were called upon to solve ecologically related disputes throughout the state. In 1934, the deputy commissioner for the United States Bureau of Fisheries received a request from the president of the sponge exchange in Tarpon Springs. It appeared that the sponges were dying off of a mysterious illness, and the deputy commissioner had no one on hand to investigate, so he asked John F. Bass Jr. to take some of his colleagues and investigate. This collection contains field notes from that expedition, as well as the Bass Lab group’s impressions of the area, its people, and the dynamics between the sponge ‘divers’ and ‘hookers.’

After John F. Bass Jr.’s death in December of 1939, field research and the supply company continued for a few more years, but ceased by the mid- to late-1940s. Wartime rationing and money troubles finally took a toll on the Lab, which had been an enclave of stability against the backdrop of the Depression. In the 1970s and 1980s, development eradicated what was left of the Lab, save these records, some equipment, and the Cookie House, which was moved to another location. While this research facility is gone, the record of its innovation and commitment to research remain here at Mote, another facility dedicated to research, outreach, and innovation.

Note on Project Funding
Since late 2009, the library staff has been conducting a basic processing and digitization project of pertinent Mote Technical Reports, 1930s-40s gray literature from the Bass Biological Laboratory (BBL) of Englewood, Florida, and various other SW Florida environment-related collections dating to the early 1920s. The process involves the rescue and preservation of unpublished documents and data from various entities, conversion to electronic format and e-publication of some of the key materials in the Library's open-access repository, DSpace. Initial digitization was funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), administered by the Florida Department of State, Division of Library and Information Services. In 2011, materials processing was supported by the Mote Scientific Foundation. This project was then expanded and continued in 2013, thanks to funds from The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

 

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