Thesis ID: CBB004699922

The Living Seas: Marine Algae, Symbiosis and the Modern Conception of Coral Reefs 1880-1930 (2023)


This dissertation examines the history of coral reef science through the lens of algology, the study of algae. Until now, the history of coral science has centered geological thought in the nineteenth century and ecological science in the late twentieth century. Focusing on the lower status science of algology, this study recuperates a hidden history of contributions to the scientific study of coral reefs by Dutch scientists, women, and a transnational network of as yet unrecognized algologists. By blending analyses of individual scientific studies with imperial-scale approaches to coral reef science, I illuminate how algologists’ contributions to coral science from 1880 to 1930 shaped the modern concept of reefs, which emphasizes their living, organism-like nature. Beginning with the symbiosis studies of Dutch algologist Anna Weber-van Bosse (1852-1942), this dissertation examines the scientific and social aspects of Weber-van Bosse’s career. In the male-dominated space of professional science, Weber-van Bosse employed social strategies to participate fully; these included fostering a transnational correspondence network of algologists. Through this network, which included four women and four men, the women scientists were able to offer and gain mutually beneficial support. In this social context, Weber-van Bosse adjusted her orientation to the nature of how organisms live together symbiotically. Tracing outward, this dissertation brings to light the algologists’ participation in major coral reef studies, including the British Coral Drilling expeditions (1896, ’97, and ‘98), the Dutch Siboga expedition (1899-1900), and the Great Barrier Reef Expedition (1928-1929). Transecting these imperial expeditions, the algological network circulated evidence for a new understanding of reefs that emphasized their living, symbiotic properties. As a result, the accepted definition of reefs as living, symbiotic entities came to incorporate ideas that originated outside of the dominant, English-speaking paradigm of coral science. However, even as the transformation in the definition of reefs to living, physiological entities was complete by 1930—decades before it has usually been recognized-- the algologists who compiled the evidence for it became lost to history. In restoring these people and their fundamental contributions to coral reef science, this dissertation shows how this came to pass and why it matters.

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Authors & Contributors
Brown, Barbara E.
Vandersmissen, Jan
Bi, Lie-jue
Burkhardt, Frederick
Darwin, Charles Robert
Dobbs, David
Archives of Natural History
Annals of the History and Philosophy of Biology
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Earth Sciences History: Journal of the History of the Earth Sciences Society
Historical Records of Australian Science
Princeton University
Cambridge University Press
Duke University Press
Pantheon Books
Drew University
Coral reefs and islands
Marine biology
Algae and algology
Darwin, Charles Robert
Agassiz, Alexander
Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe
Bornet , Jean-Baptiste Édouard
Brandt, Karl
Dana, James Dwight
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
18th century
20th century, early
21st century
17th century
Great Britain
United States
Geological Society of London
Scottish Association for Marine Science
Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS)

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