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Paul Simon Galtsoff: Oyster Researcher and Woods Hole Lab Advocate

May 19, 2021

In celebration of our 150th anniversary, we are highlighting people who helped build the foundation of fisheries and marine science. Meet Paul S. Galtsoff, noted oyster researcher and skilled administrator who championed the Woods Hole Lab in tough times.

Paul Galtsoff early in his career sitting at a desk in a lab in Russia Paul Galtsoff in a lab in Russia, likely between 1910 and 1913. Photo courtesy Gail Troussoff Marks

Born in 1887 in Moscow, Russia, Paul Simon Galtsoff was trained at the Imperial Moscow University. He graduated in 1910 with a degree in zoology and chemistry and married Eugenia Troussoff in Moscow in 1911. He soon became one of Russia’s leading scientists. As unrest took hold in the country, he joined the Imperial Russian Army in 1914. The couple moved to Sevastopol where, at age 27, he became the director of the Marine Biological Station, a branch of the Imperial Academy of Science.

Coming to the United States

As the Bolshevik Revolution spread, Paul and Eugenia were forced to leave Sevastopol during “The Great Exodus” November 13-16, 1920 with just hours to spare. Landing in the Port of New York on January 20, 1921, he found that marine research was in its infancy in the United States. With extensive experience in zoology, he eventually found a temporary position with the Bureau of Fisheries. He surveyed the Mississippi River for marine life after construction of a dam in Iowa. Two years later he was appointed to the Woods Hole Lab to serve as naturalist aboard the research vessel Albatross.  

Eugenia had pursued undergraduate and graduate studies in Russia in biology and zoology. After the couple emigrated to the United States, she worked at George Washington University as a histology assistant for many years. Paul Galtsoff pursued graduate studies at Columbia University. He earned a doctoral degree in biology in 1925 while still working at the Woods Hole Lab.

Oyster Research

Galtsoff at the Woods Hole Laboratory, 1923, The residence is in the background.
Galtsoff at the Woods Hole Lab,1923. The residence hall is in the background. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, NEFSC Galtsoff Collection

At the request of the Oyster Growers and Dealers Association, the federal fisheries bureau assigned Galtsoff to lead a shellfish research program on Long Island Sound. It was the start of his long and productive career as an oyster researcher. He concluded from his oyster habitat survey and analyses that overfishing and predation from starfish and oyster drills were the primary causes of the recent oyster population decline.

A typhoid epidemic in Chicago in 1924-1925 linked to oysters had caused a severe decline in demand for them. The industry looked to biologists like Galtsoff for solutions. He began a study of ciliary motion of oyster gills to better understand rates of feeding and the effects of temperature on feeding, which were not known. He designed methods to measure the volume of water passing through the gills, and later investigated oyster reproduction and spawning. Collaborations with other researchers at the Woods Hole Lab expanded.

Paul Galtsoff standing at table full of glass instruments at his lab in Woods Hole, 1924
Working at his lab in Woods Hole, 1924. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, NEFSC Galtsoff Collection

Economic Depression, War, and a Hurricane

The Great Depression in the 1930s meant a sharp reduction in operating funds at the Woods Hole Lab, and activities declined. No summer director was appointed for 1932, as had been the case each year when many researchers from other organizations were onsite to use facilities and conduct collaborative research. There were outside calls to have the lab declared surplus property and sold. But Galtsoff advocated to keep it open, and continued his research while assuming all administrative responsibilities.

The U.S Navy took control of the Woods Hole Lab from 1941 to 1944, although Galtsoff remained and continued some research during the war. Not long after the lab reopened fully in 1944, a major hurricane damaged most of the buildings. Calls arose once again to close the facility. Galtsoff pushed to rebuild, and by 1947 the Woods Hole Lab was open and operational. He continued his oyster research, now focused on oyster blood under varying environmental conditions, and on plankton associated with red tides. He continued to serve as director until William Royce was officially appointed to the post.

Rows of sponges ready for sale at auction in Tarpon Springs, Florida, 1938
Sponge auction at Tarpon Springs, Florida, 1938. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, NEFSC Galtsoff Collection
Paul Galtsoff standing on oyster survey vessel "Pearl" in Texas, 1926
Galtsoff aboard the oyster survey vessel "Pearl" in Texas, 1926. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, NEFSC Galtsoff Collection

Branching Out

Freed from the everyday burdens of running a laboratory, Galtsoff traveled to many U.S. and international field research sites on behalf of the government to pursue his interests in oysters and sponges. He could read six languages and often read research papers in those languages. In 1946 he was asked to join a team of scientific observers for Operation Crossroads, a series of nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. He documented the effects of the atomic bomb tests on marine life around the test site. He had expressed concern about pollution early on and investigated various sources, including paper and pulp mills, crude oil and heavy metals. He believed pollution to be mainly a social problem that education could help control.

During his career Galtsoff wrote more than 100 papers on oysters, including his classic 480-page reference The American Oyster, published in 1964. It was, in his words, “for biologists, state shellfish administrators, health officials, marine biology students, and oyster growers.” An extensive bibliography with more than 17,500 citations followed in 1972, the culmination of 43 years of work. In a 1967 article in Commercial Fisheries Review, Acting Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Director Harold E. Crowther said the book “will stand for a long time as one of the most comprehensive studies ever made of a marine animal.”  

An active participant in the National Shellfisheries Association, Galtsoff served as its president from 1939 to 1941. He was honored with the organization’s Honored Life Member Award in 1957. Fellow fisheries scientist and Russian émigré Victor Loosanoff, whom Galtsoff hired in 1932 to lead the Milford Laboratory, wrote in his tribute to Galtsoff that “under his leadership oyster research ceased to resemble, in some respects, the fine arts and began to approach an exact science.”

Paul Galtsoff at work, 1937/
At work, 1937. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, NEFSC Galtsoff Collection
Paul Galtsoff stands at back of a small boat underway, 1932
Paul Galtsoff at sea, 1932. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, NEFSC Galtsoff Collection

He enjoyed seeing the reactions of visitors to exhibits at the Woods Hole lab’s public aquarium, often designing and preparing exhibits himself. He documented the history of the Woods Hole Laboratory in his 1962 publication “The Story of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts.”

Paul and Eugenia Galtsoff co-authored several papers together between 1947 and 1953, including one on toadfish embryos implanted in adult fish related to the origin of cancerous tumors. 

Galtsoff retired officially in 1957 and remained with Eugenia in Woods Hole. She died in 1978. He participated in presentations at the Woods Hole science institutions until his death in 1979. More than 200 boxes of his original papers, reports, letters and memos were donated to the Pell Marine Science Library on the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus in Narragansett. His collection of papers, photographs, correspondence, and memorabilia from Operation Crossroads and his research into the history of the Woods Hole fisheries lab were donated to the Marine Biological Laboratory library.