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New York Zoological Society. Osborn Laboratories of Marine Sciences and New York Aquarium records

Identifier: 3001

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of records from the New York Aquarium and the Osborn Laboratories of Marine Sciences. The Aquarium material consists of Directors’ files, departmental files, and exhibit records. The Directors’ files consist primarily of subject files kept by Directors Christopher W. Coates, Paul L. Montreuil, and Ross F. Nigrelli, and document the construction, opening, and initial operation of the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, as well as its ongoing operation and expansion. The departmental records were for the most part created by the Aquarium’s animal curators and its Education Department. Major subjects include the Aquarium’s volunteer/docent program, its educational programs, the duties of Aquarium tank-men, the animal collection, and relations between Aquarium staff and their colleagues at the New York Zoological Society. The Aquarium’s exhibit records document the planning, design, construction, and appearance of the Aquarium’s animal facilities. The series is arranged roughly chronologically, starting with Charles Townsend’s labels from the original Battery Park Aquarium and continuing through the Sea Cliffs exhibit that opened in the early 1990s. The OLMS material includes correspondence, administrative records, and topical files from OLMS Directors Ross F. Nigrelli and George D. Ruggieri. The records document the planning, funding, and construction of the laboratories at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, the scientists who worked there, and their research interests and activities. The collection also includes personnel files with additional material pertaining to the research interests of and grants pursued by OLMS and Aquarium personnel, materials from NYZS trustee and Aquarium supporter Nixon Griffis, and a scrapbook of clippings concerning the New York Aquarium from around 1900.


  • circa 1900-1998
  • Majority of material found within 1960 - 1990


Access Restrictions

Certain portions of this collection are subject to access restrictions. Please contact the WCS Archives regarding possible access restrictions.

Usage Restrictions

Please contact the WCS Archives regarding possible usage restrictions.

Historical Note

The New York Aquarium was founded in 1896 at Castle Clinton in Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. Soon thereafter, in 1902, the New York Zoological Society (NYZS) was given control of the Aquarium, which the Society has operated ever since. NYZS installed Charles H. Townsend as the Aquarium’s Director, and under his leadership the Aquarium was a wildly popular destination for viewing freshwater and marine animals. From its earliest years the Aquarium also sponsored a research program; Ida M. Mellen, Charles M. Breder, Jr., and Christopher W. Coates were among the scientists employed as ichthyologists in this era.

When Charles Breder assumed the position of the Aquarium’s second Director upon Townsend’s retirement, he had the misfortune of starting his tenure just as New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was eyeing Battery Park for demolition in order to make way for his proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. That bridge was defeated by opponents in favor of a tunnel, but nevertheless in 1941 Moses largely dismantled Castle Clinton, closing down the Aquarium and sending its exhibits to temporary quarters at NYZS’s Bronx Zoo. By the 1950s, Moses supported a new New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn, conveniently reachable from the suburbs surrounding the city via Moses’s system of expressways, bridges, and parkways spanning from Westchester to Long Island and eventually across the harbor to Staten Island and New Jersey.

On the NYZS side of things, the construction of the new Aquarium was shepherded by Christopher Coates, who became its third Director in 1956. The New York Aquarium reopened to much fanfare in 1957, and its modernized exhibits were once again hugely successful. Coates retired from the directorship in 1964 and resumed his research efforts. In the meantime, over the ensuing decade, the Aquarium’s next three Directors oversaw the institution through a transitional era characterized by New York City’s changing demographics and increasing financial difficulties.

Meanwhile the Aquarium’s research program had continually expanded in size and scope. Even the closure of the old Aquarium did not deter its scientists; NYZS rented space at the American Museum of Natural History to accommodate new labs focused on genetics and marine biochemistry and ecology. Research interests included oncology, teratology, aquaculture, and marine natural products. This last field was particular fruitful for Ross F. Nigrelli, who was named Chairman of the Marine Biochemistry and Ecology Laboratory in 1957 and who had isolated the antibiotic toxin holothurin in 1952. Starting with the opening of the new Aquarium, Nigrelli and other advocates of the Aquarium’s research program pushed to reunite the labs with the Aquarium proper.

These advocates included NYZS President Fairfield Osborn. Upon Nigrelli’s appointment as the Aquarium’s Director of Research in 1964, Osborn moved to aid Nigrelli with the fundraising, planning, and other efforts needed to make that vision a reality. In 1965 architect Harmon Goldstone designed the laboratories’ new building; during construction the building and the labs were officially dedicated to Osborn and thus became the Osborn Laboratories of Marine Sciences (OLMS), with Nigrelli at their helm. OLMS opened in 1967, and while the period from 1965 to 1975 was a time of growing pains for the Aquarium, the era was OLMS’s golden age. When Nigrelli retired in 1973, his Assistant Director, George D. Ruggieri, SJ, assumed his responsibilities.

A marine biologist and Jesuit priest who had started his career at the Aquarium’s research labs in 1962, Ruggieri quickly gained increasing responsibilities at both the Aquarium and OLMS, having been named Coordinator of Research when the Labs joined the Aquarium in Coney Island in 1967, becoming the Assistant Director of the Aquarium at the same time he took over the directorship of OLMS, and becoming the Aquarium’s Director in 1976. Ruggieri championed the Aquarium and OLMS both within NYZS and outside of it, ensuring the completion of previously planned exhibits whose construction was threatened by budget shortfalls, expanding outreach to donors and politicians as city funding sources dried up, and tirelessly promoting OLMS research efforts even as major sponsors increasingly shifted their attentions away from non-academic research labs. Ruggieri’s passing in 1987 marked the end of an era for both institutions.

The Osborn Laboratories never recovered from the loss. Although the Aquarium continued to support its scientists, no new Director was named after the last one stepped down in 2005, at which time what was left of the laboratories’ research program was folded into the Aquarium’s work. The Aquarium, by contrast, has enjoyed renewed successes. Major exhibits that Ruggieri had started planning for, such as Discovery Cove and Sea Cliffs, were brought to fruition by his successor, Louis E. Garibaldi. Additional new exhibits have come on line since then, with the 2010s seeing a new wave of construction at the Aquarium after the devastating effects of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

New York Aquarium Directors
  • 1902-1937 Charles H. Townsend
  • 1939-1943 Charles M. Breder, Jr.
  • 1956-1964 Christopher W. Coates
  • 1964-1966 Paul L. Montreuil
  • 1966-1970 Ross F. Nigrelli
  • 1970-1976 James A. Oliver
  • 1976-1987 George D. Ruggieri, S.J.
  • 1987-2001 Louis E. Garibaldi
  • 2002-2006 Paul Boyle
  • 2007- Jon Forrest Dohlin
Osborn Laboratories of Marine Sciences Directors
  • 1964-1973 Ross F. Nigrelli
  • 1973-1987 George D. Ruggieri, S.J.
  • 1987-1994 Louis E. Garibaldi
  • 1994-2005 Paul Boyle

Osborn Laboratories of Marine Sciences Directors

Ross F. Nigrelli
George D. Ruggieri, S.J.
Louis E. Garibaldi
Paul Boyle


19.05 Linear Feet (19 Hollinger boxes, 1 half-Hollinger box, 9 cartons)

1.46 Cubic Feet (1 bound volume/album container, 1 flat box, 1 map case folder)

Language of Materials



The collection holds records from the New York Aquarium and the Osborn Laboratories of Marine Sciences. The New York Aquarium, founded in 1896 and operated by the New York Zoological Society since 1902, was moved from its original Manhattan location in 1941. After an interlude at the Bronx Zoo, a new Aquarium opened in 1957 in Coney Island, Brooklyn. The Aquarium’s research laboratories, which had also been moved offsite, reunited with the public Aquarium a decade later, in 1967. The Aquarium portion of the collection consists of materials from Directors Christopher W. Coates, Paul L. Montreuil, and Ross F. Nigrelli, from its Education Department and curatorial staff, and exhibit records dating from the Aquarium’s original building through the tenure of Director Louis E. Garibaldi. The OLMS material consists of correspondence, administrative records, and topical files from OLMS Directors Ross F. Nigrelli and George D. Ruggieri, and document the construction of the laboratories at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, the scientists who worked there, and their research interests and activities. There are also files from NYZS trustee and Aquarium supporter Nixon Griffis and an early scrapbook on the Aquarium.


This collection is arranged in eight series, with assorted subseries as follows:

Series 1
New York Aquarium Directors’ records, 1936-1979 (bulk 1957-1970)
(Subseries 1.1)
Christopher W. Coates, 1936-1964 (bulk 1953-1963)
(Subseries 1.2)
Paul L. Montreuil and Ross F. Nigrelli, 1963-1970
(Subseries 1.3)
Reports, 1957-1979
Series 2
New York Aquarium Departmental records, 1966-1986 (bulk 1971-1975)
(Subseries 2.1)
Animal and Education Department files, 1966-1976
(Subseries 2.2)
Operations Department attendance logs, 1971-1974
(Subseries 2.3)
Public Affairs Department, 1985-1986
Series 3
New York Aquarium Exhibit records, 1903-1998 (bulk 1983-1993)
Series 4
Osborn Laboratories of Marine Sciences records, 1948-1975
(Subseries 4.1)
Directors Ross F. Nigrelli and George D. Ruggieri 1967-1974 annual files, 1948-1975 (bulk 1966-1974)
(Subseries 4.2)
Research Coordinator George D. Ruggieri subject files, 1955-1972 (bulk 1968-1970)
(Subseries 4.3)
Audio recordings – Working Conference, 1969 February 8-9
Series 5
New York Aquarium and Osborn Laboratories of Marine Sciences personnel files, 1950-1979 (bulk 1964-1974)
Series 6
Nixon Griffis subject files, 1956-circa early 1990s (bulk 1967-1984)
Series 7
Additions, circa 1930s-1990s
Series 8
Materials about the Aquarium, circa 1900

Other Finding Aids

The Wildlife Conservation Society Archives holds additional descriptive information pertaining to this collection; please contact the archivist for more detail.

Acquisition Information

Internal transfers, 1980 (Acc. 1980.099, 1980.146, 1980.147, 1980.149, 1980.150, 1980.155, 1980.158). Internal transfer, 1982 (Acc. 1982.005). Internal transfer, 1986 (Acc. 1986.008). Internal transfer, 1992 (Acc. 1992.014). Internal transfer, 2001 (Acc. 2001.012). Internal transfers, 2016 (Acc. 2016.001, 2016.003).

Items Separated

One Hollinger box of Nigrelli personal papers (students’ theses, 1949-circa 1971 and undated) were transferred to 3053 - Nigrelli.

Approximately two Hollinger boxes worth of post-1973 NYA & OLMS subject and annual files, as well as 1.5 cartons of OLMS personnel records, were transferred to 3008 - Ruggieri.

Approximately two-thirds of a carton of Garibaldi personal papers, 1985-1991, were transferred to 3007 - Garibaldi.

A significant volume (approximately 1.5 cartons) of NYA and NYZS publications and ephemera was transferred to 2016 - Publications-Printed Ephemera.

Approximately 1.5 cartons of personnel records were separated and set aside for HR review.

Two large binders of Aquarium postcards were transferred to the WCS postcard collection.

A few inches of publications and ephemera from other zoos and aquariums, conservation organizations, and New York City and New York State groups were set aside for potential inclusion in a Zoo History special collection.

WCS Archives staff have information on additional separations.

Guide to the records of the New York Aquarium and Osborn Laboratories of Marine Sciences, circa 1900-1998 (bulk 1960-1990)
Finding aid prepared by Collection processed and finding aid created by Leilani Dawson.
May 2014
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Wildlife Conservation Society Archives Repository

WCS Library/Archives
2300 Southern Blvd
Bronx New York 10460 United States