The Stazione Zoologica has been founded in 1872 by the German zoologist Anton Dohrn (1840-1909). Anton was a student at Jena of Ernst Haeckel who introduced him to Darwinism. Dohrn thought of the Napoli institute as a pilot center of a worldwide network of research facilities for studies in marine biology. He envisioned a railroad system where scientists could stop, collect material, make observations and conduct experiments, before moving to the next ‘station': therefore the name "Stazione (=Station)". He was convinced that modern biology needed innovative ways of doing research and thanks to his managerial skills international research collaboration was born in Naples.
The City of Naples assigned Dohrn free of charge a plot of land right on the water front of the Public Park. By September 1873 the building was ready to welcome the first scientists. It could house 20 scientists in one big and several smaller labs. The public aquarium on the ground floor opened in January 1874; in Dohrn's intention it served to provide resources for the institute and to disseminate knowledge on marine organisms in the general audience. It covered 527 square meters and was exclusively dedicated to Mediterranean Fauna. A second building, connected with the first by a bridge, was added in 1885-1888, the courtyard and the east wing were built in 1905. A small summer house on the Island of Ischia added much to the hospitality offered by the Dohrn Family to the small scientific community. Fifty years later the library was inserted between the first and the second building.
On the first floor Dohrn planned two large rooms, one dedicated to science with lab space for eight scientists and one facing the sea, dedicated to leisure and music. During the summer of 1873 this room was decorated with a cycle of frescoes by the German painter Hans von Marées and the German sculptor and architect Adolf von Hildebrand, depicting scenes from Mediterranean life: fishermen, Dohrn and his friends relaxing after a hard day's work, orange groves with children, men and women. Since space was limited from the beginning and Dohrn had to use the Fresco room as Library.
To cover the running costs Dohrn introduced the so-called "working tables" or bench-system: lab space was rented out for an annual fee to governments, universities or scientific Institutions. Scientists could apply for grants to use laboratory facilities for one year. At Naples they would find what they needed: lab space, equipment, research material, an international scientific community. This system is considered one of the most important innovations in management of research and it worked fine for almost 100 years.
Dohrn never interfered with individual research projects: "freedom for research" was what he advocated during all his life. This freedom allowed for an uncontrolled input of ideas and a constant adaptation to the needs of science.
Most of the studies carried out at the Stazione Zoologica were published in a peer-reviewed journal Mitteilungen aus der Zoologischen Station zu Neapel (from 1916 Pubblicazioni della Stazione Zoologica di Napoli) which became one of the reference source for the scientific community.
Research techniques and instruments were developed and improved at the Stazione Zoologica and thanks to the innovative methods of preservation of marine organisms, developed by Salvatore Lo Bianco, samples of preserved animals were sold all over the world.
The unique setup of the Stazione Zoologica and Anton Dohrn's vision of how research should be organized survived two world wars and the change from a privately owned German to an Italian Ente morale in 1924. Anton Dohrn's son Reinhard Dohrn (1880-1962) succeeded his father in 1909. Under his directorship the tradition of international collaboration continued in spite of economic restrictions and changes in the network of funding organisations. It was due to Peter Dohrn's (1917-2007; acting as Director between 1954 and 1967) innovative ideas and initiatives - mainly concentrated on new research facilities and international workshops - that the Stazione started to return to international visibility.
The recovery of the Stazione's international status, however, proved far more difficult than expected. Since the mid-1960s, the US support to basic research in Europe was reduced, and Italian authorities proved less and less willing to invest money on an international and substantially independent institution, and tried to re-assert their control on the Stazione.
The lack of an international protection that the Institute had enjoyed ever since its foundation entailed a deep institutional crisis that was to last for almost two decades. From 1967 to 1976, the Stazione was led by a Commissario Straordinario (in chronological order: Mario Pantaleo, Guido Bacci and Alessandro Barlaam), who only took care of the current administration. The situation changed to the better in 1976, with the appointment of the embryologist Alberto Monroy as Director. Between 1977 and 1980, Monroy implemented a radical renovation of the Stazione: In 1978 the institute was organized into five Laboratories: Biological Oceanography, Benthic Ecology (at the Villa Dohrn in Ischia), Cell and Developmental Biology, Neurobiology and Biochemistry. A working group on the History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences was set up, whose activity was in a first time limited to the organisation of seminars and of the Ischia Summer School on the History of Biology, and to the management of the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences. Another journal, Marine Ecology, was also founded in order as countinuation of the Pubblicazioni della Stazione Zoologica. The scientific staff was increased and many projects were launched, in co-operation with other national and international scientific institutions.
However, more substantial changes were needed to complete the return to international competitiveness. In 1982, under the directorship of Antonio Miralto the Stazione Zoologica became a national research institute (Ente pubblico di ricerca), and in 1986 a new public funding scheme was issued, raising the government contribution from 10 million to 4.7 billion lira per year, finally putting the Institute on solid financial bases.
Gaetano Salvatore, Dean of the Medical School of Università Federico II in Napoli, was appointed as President of the Stazione Zoologica (1987 - 1997). He had a strong vision of modern research and boosted the Institute.