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Scripps Institution of Oceanography: A Century of Unlocking the Mysteries of the Sea

The Hotel del Coronado boathouse was not the most ideal place to conduct a biological survey. Built on wooden pilings over the bay, the structure was not steady enough for microscopic work, and there was no access to sea water. Yet the June 1903 summer research project was a success for zoologist William Ritter, particularly because it led to a fortuitous introduction to E.W. Scripps, a local newspaper magnate. E.W. provided $500 towards Ritter’s work, the first of many gifts from the Scripps family that would help to launch one of the greatest oceanographic institutions in the world.

In August 1903, Ritter was invited to the Scripps family’s ranch in Northeast San Diego to discuss his work and aspirations of a permanent research laboratory in the region. By September, the Marine Biological Association of San Diego was chartered, with E.W. and his older half sister, Ellen, providing an initial investment of $4,500 each over the first three years. In addition, E.W. donated his yacht, the Loma, for the purpose of collecting samples, which he had retrofitted with a gas engine and scientific equipment for $1,500.

By 1906, a dedicated workspace had been built on Point La Jolla, dubbed the “Little Green Laboratory.” Ritter and his team began to conduct weekly lectures, a favorite of patron Ellen Scripps, who donated $50,000 to support the scientists. Just three years later in 1909, Ellen added a codicil to her will bequeathing $150,000—a gift that changed everything for the future of the institution.

It was Ellen’s commitment that persuaded the University of California Regents to seriously consider incorporating the burgeoning research group as a department of the university. On July 12, 1912, the transfer became official. The station was designated “The Scripps Institution for Biological Research,” named in honor of Ellen’s deceased brother, George, from whose estate much of the endowment had been derived.

“Through the aid of Miss Ellen B. Scripps and E.W. Scripps, the Scripps Institution for Biological Research has been built up until now it is recognized as one of the most significant and promising research institutions in America,” stated a 1912 letter issued by the University of California.

Today known as Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the research institution has become one of the world’s oldest, largest and most important centers for ocean, earth, atmospheric and climate science research. Scripps Oceanography, which became a division of UC San Diego when the campus was founded in 1960, now boasts 800 staff, 300 graduate students, and 238 faculty members—including a National Medal of Science honoree and a Nobel Prize recipient.

Over the past century, Scripps scientists have sailed more than seven million nautical miles, charting the very course for modern ocean science. They embark on journeys across the globe aboard an unparalleled fleet of research vessels, including the newest addition, R/V Sally Ride, one of the most technologically advanced scientific ships in the nation. As leading experts, Scripps researchers help shape new fields, such as developing new drugs from marine resources, and advance our knowledge of weather and climate extremes so that we can better understand and protect our natural world.

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