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By Nicole Elmer, August 14, 2017

“The intense concentration of the man and his scintillating dedication to the field of general physiology are impossible to describe, but the memory of these things will remain with his students to the end of their lives.” - Gordon Gunter, former student of Dr. Elmer Lund

Elmer Julius Lund (UTMSI)

Elmer Julius Lund is perhaps best remembered as the founder of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (MSI), but he was also a prominent physiologist and experimentalist. He served as professor in the Department of Zoology at UT from 1926 to 1949. While he contributed a great deal to the beginnings of MSI, he also experienced a troubled relationship with the University at the end of his time in the Department.

Lund was born on December 13, 1884 in Springfield, Minnesota, and attended Hamline University, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, where he was an excellent discus thrower as an undergraduate. In 1971, he would posthumously be inducted into Hamline’s Athletic Hall of Fame for his discus talents. Lund received his bachelors degree from Hamline in 1910 and his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1914.

Lund joined the UT faculty in 1926 and was responsible for developing the physiology and biophysics division. He also served as the thesis advisor for Dr. Hilda Florence Rosene, one of only two women to have tenure-track positions in natural sciences at UT from 1930s – 1950s. He would later marry Rosene in 1955 when he was 71 years old. 

Following the Second World War, UT began to increase in size. The Department of Zoology was growing with both new faculty and students. At this time, the physiology group, of which Lund and Rosene were leaders, began a rift with the Department of Zoology, seeking independence from the department. According to Professor Marshall Wheeler in his autobiography: “The group claimed that they were Physiologists, and deserved to be known as such. Dr. Lund had some new stationery printed up with that title. It was a sad time; he would spend his lecture hours talking about the situation rather than about the subject matter of the course. The climax came with a trial by a jury of peers on campus.”

In 1949, Lund was dismissed by the Board of Regents for “refusing to cooperate with his colleagues on departmental matters.” Dr. Wheeler explains it in his autobiography: “He was expelled from the faculty…and went into real estate business (and did very well!)” However, a faculty committee retained him as director of the Institute of Marine Sciences, as it was called then, with his work starting there in 1935.


MSI in 1950s
The Institute for Marine Science in the 1950s
(photo from Gulf of Mexico Science)

The Marine Science Institute is located in Port Aransas on Mustang Island, a 20-mile long barrier island bound on the north by Aransas Pass inlet and on the south by Padre Island. The Aransas Pass inlet is a major waterway serving as an entrance from the Gulf of Mexico to the bay areas in the vicinity of Corpus Christi. The MSI is about two hundred miles south of UT Austin. 

It would take three attempts before a bonafide marine station for research was established here. The first time was in 1892, when UT's Board of Regents suggested to then governor of Texas, Jim Hogg, that the gulf shoreline of Texas was an “unrivaled opportunity…Strange animals and plants, a fauna and flora little known, invite the research of the student and investigator.” Eight years later, with $300, the Board established the first marine lab in Galveston, only to see it wiped out in a hurricane shortly after.

In 1915, UT made another attempt, with UT philanthropist and regent George W. Brackenridge donating $500 and his 144-foot yacht, NAVIDAD, to serve as the research station. However, another storm came, inflicting irreparable damage to the vessel and ending UT's involvement in marine science for some time.

Red tide fromNOAA
A red tide (NOAA)

Yet this was to change on the third attempt. A major fish kill occurred in Port Aransas in 1935, evoking Lund’s interest. He traveled there to investigate this fish kill of mostly menhaden and mullet, later determined to be caused by a "red tide." A red tide is a common name for an algae bloom when caused by some species of dinoflagellates. The bloom will take on a brown or red color, and often depletes oxygen or produces natural toxins, either of which can cause a large fish kill. 

To continue his investigation into the fish kill, Lund and colleague Dr. A.H. Wiebe constructed a rough-lumber one-room shack and laboratory on the old US Army Corps of Engineers dock. After Lund spent the summer of 1935 conducting research, he was left with many unanswered questions and found the resources lacking. He convinced UT to create a marine lab on the coast. In 1941, the Institute of Marine Science was officially formed, and Lund was its first director.

Serving as director until 1949, Lund would continue to push for research at the institute. He studied the distribution, life, history, and relative abundance of marine fishes of Texas, in addition to the physiology of oysters. Lund would also purchase 12 acres of land after the Second World War and donate them to the lab. He also established the scientific journal Publications of the Institute of Marine Science, now called Contributions in Marine Science, which is still published yearly by MSI.

DormB hist present2
Left: Lund’s shack on US Army Corps of Engineers dock. Right: the building today (UTMSI)

Today, UT MSI still researches the red tides that initially brought Lund to the Gulf, in addition to marine ecosystems, fisheries biology, and biogeochemical cycles. UT MSI, often referred to UT’s “Window on the Sea,” is also heavily involved in public outreach and K-12 education. The building Lund built in 1935 and used as his lab is still in use, named “Dormitory B,” and is the oldest building on Mustang Island.


Amos, A.F. And L.M. Amos (Eds.) “Window on the Sea” The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute, Port Aransas, TX, 1987.

Handbook of Texas Online, Robert S. Jones, "University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute," accessed June 12, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/kcu27

Haberer, Jaime, DeHart Miyuki E., and Fuiman, Lee A. “The University of Texas Marine Science Institute: ‘Grandaddy ‘ of Texas Marine Laboratories.” Gulf of Mexico Science, 2010 pp. 71-81

Palmer, Sally, "UTMSI has roots in red tide," Spotlights. October 2, 2015.

In Memoriam: Elmer Julius Lund. Documents of the General Faculty. Biographical sketch prepared by Therese Palomo Acosta and posted on the Faculty Council web site on January 18, 2001.

Wheeler, Marshall. Looking Back: An Autobiography and Genealogy  The Anudsen Publishing Company, 1993.