The first marine institute by the sea (1843-1967) | Flanders Marine Institute

Flanders Marine Institute

Platform for marine research

The first marine institute by the sea (1843-1967)

In 1843 Pierre-Joseph Van Beneden, zoology professor at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, achieved a world first: in this year he converted at his own expense a small building at his in-laws’ oyster farm in Ostend into the very first marine research station in the world. This private research laboratory was modest in size and design, but soon established a reputation as a respected meeting place for marine scientists. Renowned Belgian and foreign scientists regularly visited the Ostend coast to conduct important experiments.

When Van Beneden’s private station eventually closed down after some 30 years of activity, Belgium did not have a marine institute anymore. While marine research was booming all over Europe during the 1870s, the Belgian government was not very willing to invest in this discipline. One of the stumbling blocks was the establishment of a publicly funded  marine laboratory.

Attempts to create a new station failed repeatedly. In 1883 Edouard Van Beneden, the son of Pierre-Joseph and a zoology professor at the University of Liège, got the permission to equip three rooms in the buildings adjacent to Leopoldsluis in Ostend as a laboratory, but this institution was granted only a short life. Gustave Gilson, a student of Van Beneden senior and his successor as zoology professor at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, installed a small research station on the Ostend coast shortly before WW I, but this did not survive the war years.

The lack of the necessary marine research infrastructure was high on Gilson’s agenda after the end of the Great War. He was of the opinion that ‘only the establishment of a permanent institution by the sea can meet the needs generated by the continuous study of the marine environment’. Finally, Mr Gilson succeeded in convincing the authorities in Brussels of the importance of a marine institute in 1927. In this year, the non-profit organisation under Belgian law Zeewetenschappelijk  Instituut (ZWI) / Institut d'Etudes Maritimes was established in Ostend with limited resources and with Mr Gilson as its first General Director. Ten years later ZWI was recognised by Royal Decree as an institution of public utility.

The institute concentrated on sea fisheries research, the inventory of fauna and flora in the Belgian coastal waters and statistical checks of sea fisheries. For many years, the modest facilities of ZWI were the only buildings on the Belgian coast in which marine research could be conducted. Between 1940 and 1947 the activities of ZWI were temporarily put on hold due to the Second World War and financial problems, while the search for a suitable replacement of Mr Gilson, who died in 1944, dragged on. Eventually, the institute resumed its activities under the management of biologist Eugène Leloup. Because of the continuous lack of necessary subsidies, the institution was closed down permanently in 1967, however.