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Vinal Nye Edwards: Naturalist Extraordinaire And The First Federal Fisheries Employee

December 27, 2021

In celebration of our 150th anniversary, we are highlighting people who helped build the foundation of fisheries and marine science. Meet Vinal Nye Edwards, a local Woods Hole naturalist, who was hired in 1871.

Head and shoulders view of older man with beard wearing a suit coat.

On the second floor wall of the Woods Hole Fisheries Laboratory is a bronze tablet in memory of Vinal Nye Edwards. A local resident, he became the first permanent federal employee of the U.S. Fish Commission. He was hired by Spencer Baird in 1871 soon after the establishment of the Fish Commission’s first research station in Woods Hole that summer. Edwards kept station operations going year-round. During the next few years, Baird set up summer research stations in other East Coast and Great Lakes locations. He chose Woods Hole as the permanent lab location in 1875.

Edwards was “a most remarkable man,” Paul Galtsoff wrote in his 1962 publication on the history of the Woods Hole fisheries laboratory(pdf, 132 pages). “Without a formal scientific education he was a born naturalist who possessed the essential characteristics of a true scientist, with great ability for accurate observation, correct recording of facts, and enthusiastic devotion to the study of nature.”

Born March 19, 1840 in the same School Street house in Woods Hole in which he died on April 15, 1919, Edwards knew everyone at the lab. His knowledge of the marine environment in and around Woods Hole was legendary. He was known for his willingness to help others and his knowledge of the lab’s operations. Edwards was the “go-to person” for those affiliated with the lab during his nearly 50 years of service to federal fisheries.

A Collector and Observer

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Man standing in boat next to tall poles in the water enclosed by a net or seine. Another man in a small boat inside the enclosure checks on fish caught inside the net.
Vinal Edwards at a seine in Woods Hole. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Edwards was not only a collector but an astute observer. He kept daily records of sea -water temperatures in Woods Hole. He recorded catches from the fish pounds and all species collected from the various vessels used in research. He also recorded the appearance of sea birds and their nesting, and the results of seining and dredging operations.

University of Pennsylvania biologist Edward Linton became a leading authority on worms, especially parasitic worms in fish. He studied at the lab as an independent researcher from 1882 to 1941 and knew Edwards well. He noted that Edwards’s “ability to forecast the weather for many hours ahead “seemed uncanny to inlanders not familiar with the sea… The set of the tides seemed to be in his mind as a moving picture which he could refer to on the moment, so that it was much easier to ask Vinal when it would be low water at Katama Bay on the coming Saturday, or when the tide would begin to make to the eastward at Quick’s Hole on the following Monday… than it would be to attempt to work it out from the tide tables.”

Frequent seining and dredging trips resulted in the discovery of hundreds —if not— thousands of new species through the years. Edwards was usually involved. “Shore seining seemed to be his favorite occupation in which he engaged with an unquenchable enthusiasm,” Galtsoff noted in his lab history. “He frequently rowed his heavy skiff, loaded with a 200-foot seine, 5 or 6 miles and after seining for several hours returned home in darkness.” Edward’s love of collecting and observation was known to Spencer Baird, who participated in many of the early seining trips himself. Baird stipulated that “Mr. Edwards was to do no regular work on Sunday.”

Known to Many Researchers, Helped All

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Painting of man wearing a hat and high boots standing on the shoreline holding a fishing net on a pole standing upright on the shore in his right hand. The bow of a small boat  pulled up on shore is visible in the background with a line attached to the bow trailing across the beach.
Painting of Vinal Nye Edwards Credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC Historical Photo Collection

Named the lab’s permanent collector in the 1890s, Edwards helped staff as well as investigators and their students from many colleges and universities. They came to work at the lab without charge during the summer months, and he helped them obtain what they needed for their research. While the number of biologists pursuing independent research at the lab varied each year, that number peaked at 61 in 1901.

Edwards knew them all. Many were already prominent in their fields or became the future leaders of American biology. Among them was zoologist and geneticist Edmund B. Wilson of Columbia University, who helped Addison E. Verrill of Yale University lead the lab’s zoological research in the early years. Wilson also conducted research on the embryology of mollusks and cell lineage while working at the fisheries lab from 1877 to 1886.

Wilson wrote shortly after Edwards death: "It is hard to realize that the familiar figure of Vinal N. Edwards will no longer be seen at Woods Hole and he will be greatly missed, especially by all the earlier workers who had come to rely so often upon his advice and judgment. No one could know Vinal Edwards without having the kindliest feelings toward him personally and without coming to realize that he was a man of rare character and attainments. I always associated him with Spencer Baird, who I know had a very high regard for him and fully appreciated his important services to the Fish Commission.  Woods Hole will not seem the same without him."

Award Named in His Honor

The bronze tablet in honor of Vinal Edwards was initially mounted on the wall at the entrance to the old laboratory and aquarium. The building stood at the end of Water Street from 1885 to 1958. When it was demolished due to age and hurricane damage, the tablet was moved to the current main laboratory building which replaced it at the same location. The tablet’s inscription reads: “This memorial to Vinal Nye Edwards is erected by his friends as a mark of their esteem, in recognition of his gifts as a naturalist and of his services to science.” Residents of Woods Hole and associates of the Marine Biological Laboratory as well as staff of the Fisheries attended the presentation ceremony in 1925. Biologist Edward Linton, who worked with Edwards for 40 years, presided at the ceremony.

Edward’s contributions to fisheries science and the workplace are still honored today. The Vinal Nye Edwards Award  is among several coveted awards and honors based on nominations from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s staff. It is presented to a member of the center’s permanent staff “ who best exemplifies dedication and excellence in job performance in furtherance of the center’s NEFSC's mission while improving the quality of life for others in the workplace.”