The MDI Biological Laboratory was founded in 1898 as the Tufts Summer School of Biology at South Harpswell by Professor J.S. Kingsley of what was then Tufts College. The Lab’s earliest faculty and students studied comparative anatomy and the embryology of marine species and plants collected from the local waters of Casco Bay in southern Maine. The Laboratory consisted of a single research building and a house occupied by Kingsley and his family, with visiting scientists and their families frequently housed in tents. For seven or eight years, instruction was carried out along with research, but the instruction was eventually dropped in favor of pure research.
The Laboratory continued in South Harpswell until 1921, when it was packed onto a boat and sailed downeast to its present location in Salisbury Cove on Frenchman Bay. George Dorr, who with John Rockefeller, Jr., and Charles Eliot created what became Acadia National Park, felt that Mount Desert Island presented an ideal location for a marine biological laboratory. Dorr offered the Old Emery Farm in Salisbury Cove to the Harpswell Lab if they would relocate. A new laboratory was quickly built and research began anew that summer. Gradually, additional small laboratories were built near the shore.
Research at the Laboratory in the 1920s and 1930s focused on defining kidney function. Leading kidney scientists, many of whom often worked with mammalian models during the academic year, carried out comparative studies on cold-water marine organisms here in the summer months. The Lab was closed during World War II, but resumed its customary summer schedule in 1946 with continued focus on kidney research as well as research on developmental and cell biology.
In the early 1950s, the number of investigators increased, and more students were brought to the Lab to assist with research activities. By the early 1960s, about 45 investigators worked at the Lab each summer. Research activities were increasingly focused on cellular and epithelial physiology. During this time, MDIBL investigator James A. Shannon was appointed to head the National Institutes of Health, and E.K. Marshall and Homer Smith’s renal physiology studies led to a new understanding how the kidney regulates salt concentration in the body’s cells. Wendell Burger’s discovery in 1959 of the shark rectal gland’s role in pumping salt from the intestine established this tissue as a powerful model for understanding epithelial chloride transport and diseases such as cystic fibrosis.
The 1960s brought a new emphasis on the biological effects of compounds such as DDT, crude oil, and other toxins in the marine environment. In 1971, Bodil Schmidt-Nielsen and William Kinter, researchers in kidney physiology and toxicology, began the first year-round research at MDIBL. Other work was conducted in cell biology, fluid and ion transport, and cell metabolism.
In 1985, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center for Membrane Toxicity Studies (CMTS) was established at MDIBL. Building on MDIBL’s strengths in membrane studies and toxicology, CMTS was dedicated to studies in the areas of signal transduction and ion transport, and the transport and excretion of xenobiotics including heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, tin, copper, zinc, and cadmium.
In 1999, MDIBL began a period of substantial growth, launching a permanent year-round research program and significantly expanding its educational activities. In 2008, the Lab opened a new 15,000 square foot laboratory building constructed using state-of-the-art green technology. The building is LEED-certified at the gold level. A second green laboratory building opened in 2012.
In 2001, MDIBL established a federally funded partnership among Maine institutions to increase Maine’s competitiveness in attracting federal monies for scientific research. Now known as the Maine IDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), the network connects MDIBL—the lead institution—with The Jackson Laboratory and ten Maine colleges and universities. The INBRE program has received $45 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health.
Kevin Strange came from Vanderbilt University in 2009 to serve as MDIBL's first full-time, year-round director. In 2013, MDIBL became an NIH-funded Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE). This Center supports research to enhance tissue repair and regeneration, and extend healthy lifespan.