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The Iowa Lakeside Laboratory: A Century of Discovering the Nature of Nature

The Iowa Lakeside Laboratory: A Century of Discovering the Nature of Nature

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by Michael J. Lannoo

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Imagine a place dedicated to the long-term study of nature in nature, a permanent biological field station, a teaching and research laboratory that promotes complete immersion in the natural world. Lakeside Laboratory, founded on the shore of Lake Okoboji in northwestern Iowa in 1909, is just such a place. In this remarkable and insightful book, Michael Lannoo sets


Imagine a place dedicated to the long-term study of nature in nature, a permanent biological field station, a teaching and research laboratory that promotes complete immersion in the natural world. Lakeside Laboratory, founded on the shore of Lake Okoboji in northwestern Iowa in 1909, is just such a place. In this remarkable and insightful book, Michael Lannoo sets the story of Lakeside Lab within the larger story of the primacy of fieldwork, the emergence of conservation biology, and the ability of field stations to address such growing problems as pollution, disease, habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change.
At the intersection of major ecosystems with distinct plant and animal communities and surrounded by what, ironically, may be the most intensely cultivated landscape on earth, Lakeside has a long history of rubber-boot biologists saturated in the spirit that grounds the new discipline of conservation biology, and Lannoo brings this history to life with his descriptions of the people and ideas that shaped it. Lakeside’s continuing commitment to bringing the laboratory to the field rather than bringing the field to the lab has supported a focus on mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, ichthyology, invertebrate biology, parasitology, limnology, and algology, subjects rarely taught now on university campuses but crucial to the planet’s health.

Today’s huge array of environmental problems can best be solved by people who have learned about nature within nature at a place with a long history of research and observation, people who thoroughly understand and appreciate nature’s cogs and wheels. Lakeside Lab and biological research stations like it have never been more relevant to science and to society at large than they are today. Michael Lannoo convinces us that while Lakeside’s past is commendable, its future, grounded in ecological principles, will help shape a more sustainable society. 

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Biology has changed greatly over the past century, but as author Mike Lannoo explains, field stations still have an important role to play. Readers will enjoy this engaging account of one long-established station and the many people who have contributed to its success. The pages are amply illustrated with historic photos that add much to the book’s appeal.”—Peter J. van der Linden, executive director, Iowa Lakeside Laboratory and Regents Resource Center 

Product Details

University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
Bur Oak Book Series
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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The Iowa Lakeside Laboratory

a century of discovering the nature of nature
By Michael J. Lannoo


Copyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-121-9

Chapter One

the spirit

WHAT IS IT about these old stone labs? Massive glacial erratics arranged using some form of lost art to frame the narrow doors and large banks of windows and to support the steep, shake-shingled roofs. Unusual and so impressive; everybody seems drawn to them. Yet it is inside these buildings where you sense the true nature of the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, present in the curious damp smells. Whiff s of rich prairie soil, wetland muck, dried plants, mothballs, ethanol, and formaldehyde, with top notes of coffee and stale cigar. It is in odors, as Faust knew, where memories reside. The smells in these old stone labs are the ghosts of their former inhabitants, and they convey the spirit of natural history practiced by these old-timers. It is the same spirit found at field stations around the world, dripping with the natural history facts, techniques, and perspectives that shape the foundation of the best of modern ecology. This spirit is found in the "-ology" subjects that form the backbone of field station curricula and ground the new discipline of conservation biology. Subjects that include mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, ichthyology, invertebrate biology, parasitology, and algology—rarely taught nowadays on university campuses, or merely presented superficially; this, at a time when the world desperately needs such expertise.

It is the spirit of natural history that gives ecology its "older grace and intelligence" (Hawken 2007, 165). It is the portion of ecology that is grounded in facts and in inductive, bottom-up thinking. It permeates those who are curious; those with an "intelligent interest in the possibilities of living" (Meine 1988, 163). This spirit is present in the rubber-boot biologists working alone and with little fanfare at field stations and at other remote sites such as shacks, cabins, huts, wall tents, and trailers; places that put people close to nature without getting in its way. As I have noted in Leopold's Shack and Ricketts's Lab (Lannoo 2010, 156), this spirit is found after midnight, in the mist over a springtime wetland, with spring peepers calling nearby and crawfish frogs roaring in the distance. It is found in a couple of cold beers and a brisk, late night skinny-dip after a long hot day of studying prairie. It is there in an observation, in knowing that in the entire history of Earth and its humans, this is the first seeing. This spirit is deep in the student who, with ruler and notebook in hand and soaked to the skin in the middle of a driving spring squall, says, "I'd still rather be doing this than sitting in front of my computer." This spirit is more generally found in the ideas that question convention and move a discipline forward, not in ideologies that constrain and dictate. It arises spontaneously but not capriciously. This is the story of one place where, in 1909, the spirit appeared; this is the story of the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory.

The Iowa Lakeside Laboratory celebrated its centennial in 2009, and while there were plenty of festivities organized for this event, these were transient, and the idea arose to pull together a volume that would mark in some more permanent way this extraordinary milestone (the average life of field stations being something like sixteen years). But to do this book correctly, it has to be more than a remembrance. It is true that many of the most compelling images of the Lab come from the early Victorian days when students lived in tents and faculty wore neckties. But it also may be true that never in its entire history has Lakeside Lab been more relevant to science and to society at large than it is today.

Today we face a huge array of environmental problems including pollution, toxic waste, endocrine disruption, habitat loss, disease, invasive species, extinction, and climate change. The agricultural chemicals that disrupt reproduction in natural populations of wild animals have now been shown to do the same in humans. (Remember, Lakeside Lab is located in Iowa, the most intensively cultivated landscape on Earth, where less than one percent of presettlement vegetation remains.) Not only do we need laboratories in order to study these impacts (effects on nature being best examined in nature), and not only do we need laboratories with long histories to offer comparisons and insights into what we observe today, but we also need the kind of people that field stations produce—people who know nature and have learned how to think about nature. In the central Midwest, this place is the Iowa Lakeside Lab, situated in the remarkable community of Okoboji. While we reflect upon Lakeside's past, the true reason for the making of this book lies in the potential of this unique institution to produce the knowledge that infuses people with the spirit necessary to reshape humanity's future.

Toward this end I interweave the history of the Lakeside Laboratory with the people and ideas that helped shape this unusual institution. Using a chronological approach I describe the grounds and the buildings, and how they have changed throughout the years. I present the people and their ideas and describe how many of these original ideas persist today. I also explain how new ideas, born from experience, have grown the place. Finally, I suggest that the lessons learned at Lakeside can help shape a society that is more grounded, more sustainable, and richer in experiences and options. This may seem to be a leap, an idea bordering on the outrageous. But take a hard look around at this world we currently inhabit and ask yourself, "Isn't it time we tried something else?"

something heavy in the midwestern air

DURING THE LAST quarter or so of the nineteenth century, the upper Midwest produced some of the world's best naturalists cum ecologists. This was at the same time Thomas Macbride, Samuel Calvin, and Bohumil Shimek were conceiving the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, and when Michigan's Douglas Lake and Minnesota's Itasca field stations were being built, and I think this was not an accident. There was something heavy in the air back then, something that powered an interest in studying the life sciences—the drive to understand something outside and larger than oneself. These tendencies may be lighter in the air today. As Aldo Leopold (1936, 181) pointed out in his obituary of Franklin Schmidt, while it was the first wave of North American pioneers who settled the land, it was the second wave of pioneers who were the scientists, studying the new (to the EuroAmerican eye) landscape and profoundly interested not only in the new species of plants and animals they found, but also in how these organisms fit together to produce the fertile midwestern ecosystems they were experiencing.

Among the earliest of these biologists was George Kruck Cherrie, born in Iowa in 1865. Cherrie graduated from Iowa State College and spent his career at the American Museum of Natural History. His specialty was the birds and mammals of Central and South America, which he helped to describe using specimens collected during his approximately forty expeditions. Cherrie is best known today for accompanying Theodore Roosevelt during his 1914 expedition down the River of Doubt.

Frederic Clements was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1874. After faculty appointments at the universities of Nebraska and Minnesota, he moved to the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., in 1917, where he remained until 1941. Clements worked at various research stations across the western United States and developed a theory of plant succession proposing that following a disturbance, plant communities change—generally from annual to perennial species—to eventually form climax communities appropriate to their environment. While severely criticized during his time, this idea has held and today Clements is revered as one of history's most influential ecologists.

Warder Clyde Allee was born on June 5, 1885, in Bloomington, Indiana. He received his undergraduate degree from Earlham College in 1908 and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1912. He returned to the University of Chicago in 1921, where his students included Ed Ricketts (see below) and Dick Bovbjerg (former director of Lakeside Lab and my first mentor). Aldo Leopold's oldest daughter Nina worked for Allee during World War II. Allee wrote a number of books, including Animal Aggregations: A Study in General Sociology, Principles of Animal Ecology (co-authored with Alfred E. Emerson, Orlando Park, Thomas Park, and Karl P. Schmidt), and Cooperation among Animals, with Human Implications. He is perhaps best known for describing what is now termed the Allee effect, which states that in animals per capita growth rate decreases as population size decreases, an important concept in conservation biology.

Rand Aldo Leopold, born January 11, 1887, in Burlington, Iowa, was the greatest field biologist of the first half of the twentieth century. After serving with the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico, Leopold moved to Wisconsin where he began to act on his lifelong interest in wildlife. In 1933 he published Game Management and with it founded the discipline of wildlife biology. In 1935 he bought acreage and a shack in the Baraboo Hills region north of Madison. Weekends at the shack bought him time to think, his thinking became essays, and his essays became A Sand County Almanac, published a year after his tragic death fighting a prairie fire. Two decades after its publication, Sand County grew into a bible for the environmental movement—a must-read—and Leopold became lionized.

Olaus Johan Murie was born March 1, 1889, in Moorhead, Minnesota. After undergraduate training at North Dakota State University and Pacific University, Murie received his master's degree from the University of Michigan. In 1920 he joined the U.S. Biological Survey and spent the next six years in the field, with his half-brother Adoph, studying caribou life history and natural history. In 1924 he married Margaret (Mardy) Thomas. Olaus was always his own man, especially when it came to addressing federal policies designed to control predators. In 1937 Murie left the Biological Survey and became one of the leaders of the newly created Wilderness Society. In 1954 he published his popular Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks. In 1956 he and Mardy began their successful campaign to convince President Eisenhower to designate the eight-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to being a prolific writer, Murie was a gifted artist; the animals in his paintings appear to be breathing.

Ira Noel Gabrielson was born in Sioux Rapids, Iowa, on September 27, 1889. While attending Morningside College in Sioux City, he worked at Lakeside Lab; he graduated in 1912. Gabrielson then briefly taught biology at Marshall High School before joining the U.S. Biological Survey. For the next twenty years, he worked on a variety of wildlife management and research programs, mainly in the West. In 1935 he relocated to Washington, D.C., and became chief of the Survey's division of wildlife research. When in 1940 the Biological Survey and the Bureau of Fisheries were consolidated into the Fish and Wildlife Service, Gabrielson was made director, a position he held until after the war. In 1946 he retired and became president of the Wildlife Management Institute. In 1948 Gabrielson helped create the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). For a time he was Rachel Carson's boss. In 1961 he helped organize the World Wildlife Fund and became its president.

Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts was born May 14, 1897, in Chicago, Illinois. Ricketts was educated at Illinois Normal and the University of Chicago. At Chicago he studied under, and was deeply influenced by, W. C. Allee (see above). In 1923 Ricketts moved to Monterey, California, and established Pacific Biological Laboratories, a biological supply company. Ricketts and his lab became the center of a lively artist group that included John and Carol Steinbeck, Joseph Campbell, John Cage, Henry Miller, and Bruce and Jean Ariss. In 1939 Ricketts published his landmark Between Pacific Tides, the first field guide to the intertidal invertebrates of the West Coast. In 1941 he collaborated with John Steinbeck on the classic ecological travelogue Sea of Cortez. In 1945 Steinbeck made "Doc" Ricketts the principal in his novella Cannery Row. Sadly, Ricketts died in 1948 after being struck by a train near the east end of Cannery Row.

Paul Lester Errington was born on June 14, 1902, in Bruce, South Dakota, and grew up among the wetlands of the vast Prairie Coteau. Following an undergraduate degree at South Dakota State Agricultural College (now, University), he did his graduate work in association with Aldo Leopold (see above). Errington received his doctorate in 1932 and became the head of Iowa State's newly established Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Unit, the first of its kind under a program conceived, and in part funded, by the Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist Ding Darling. Errington became the world's expert on wetland mammals and the broader topic of the role predation plays in controlling (or not) wildlife populations. Among Errington's many books are the classics Of Men and Marshes, Muskrats and Marsh Management, and The Red Gods Call.

Norman Fitzroy Maclean was born on December 23, 1902, in Clarinda, Iowa. Maclean's family moved to Montana when he was eight years old, but after attending Dartmouth, he returned to the Midwest when he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he enjoyed a distinguished teaching career. Maclean and his family escaped Chicago to spend their summers at the family cabin on Seeley Lake in Montana. After Maclean's retirement in 1973, he wrote two classics of outdoor literature, A River Runs through It and Young Men and Fire. These works demonstrate Maclean's deep understanding of the relationships between humans and the natural world.

Taken together, Leopold's Sand County Almanac, Steinbeck and Ricketts's Sea of Cortez, and Maclean's A River Runs through It represent American literature's best attempt to explain the workings of humans through the workings of nature. And while it is these works that society sees, they are but a fraction—among the best of the best to be sure—of the work produced during a period of enormous effort and insight, when the mid-western United States was producing the best natural historians in the country, perhaps the world. And it is from this remarkable assemblage of talent that the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory emerged.

an opportunity of magnificent possibilities

IN 1909 when Thomas Huston Macbride founded the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, the United States was on the brink of becoming great. Teddy Roosevelt had been in office eight years, and the country's image of itself as a nation cobbled from rugged individuals occupying a frontier landscape rested squarely on the broad shoulders of its bully president. This was a country that did not yet know who it was but was eager to find out. And one way it sought to know itself was to discover its nature, in the most literal sense. As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth, natural history surveys became institutionalized, great public museums were being built and stocked, and biological field stations were springing up along our coasts and at remote inland sites. In the Midwest, the University of Michigan's station at Douglas Lake and the University of Minnesota's station at Itasca were founded the same year as Iowa's Lakeside Lab.

But unlike the stations built by the public universities of Michigan and Minnesota, Iowa's Lakeside Laboratory began as a private enterprise. Macbride, who in 1914 became the president of the State University of Iowa (SUI), spent a great deal of time during the late 1890s in north-western Iowa studying the geology and flora of the region. He dreamed of a summer station to facilitate further discoveries and to "teach Iowans about Iowa" (Bovbjerg, Ulmer, and Downey 1974, 3). Then in the summer of 1908, he convinced some SUI alumni to purchase a five-acre tract on the western shore of West Lake Okoboji; the transaction was completed in January 1909. A large cottage was on site (and, newly restored, still is). A laboratory building was quickly built and the first session was held that summer. Ten courses were taught, which twenty-six students attended. Professors Thomas Macbride, Samuel Calvin, Bohumil Shimek, Robert Wylie, George Kay, and Bert Bailey—all dressed formally in coat and tie—were on the faculty. Fourteen public lectures were presented; lake steamers brought visitors on round trips. Students from fourteen Iowa colleges were charged $25 tuition and $4 per week room and board ("excellent tents, floor, walls and fly" [Bovbjerg, Ulmer, and Downey 1974, 4]). The newly constructed H-shaped laboratory (68 x 53 ft.) included three large and four small classrooms. When that first summer was over, Macbride ended his report with these remarks: "The alumni are face to face with an opportunity of magnificent possibilities, to the University at large and to this great commonwealth; but we have just begun. Permanent structures will some day crown the beautiful hilltop and pillars shine among its trees, and all visitors to our lakes, and all residents by the shores, and all lovers of nature in our State, will find from year to year refreshment and solace and joy in the halls and libraries of the Lakeside Laboratory, founded by the alumni of the University of Iowa" (Bovbjerg, Ulmer, and Downey 1974, 3).


Excerpted from The Iowa Lakeside Laboratory by Michael J. Lannoo Copyright © 2012 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael J. Lannoo is professor of anatomy and cell biology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He is the author of Okoboji Wetlands: A Lesson in Natural History (Iowa, 1996), Malformed Frogs: The Collapse of Aquatic Ecosystems, and Leopold’s Shack and Ricketts’s Lab: The Emergence of Environmentalism and the editor of Status and Conservation of Midwestern Amphibians (Iowa, 1998) and Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species

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