Austria’s Ahead-of-Its-Time Institute That Was Lost to Nazis

An early air-conditioning system used to control air temperatures at the VivariumManfred Laubichler was recently interviewed for an article by Chelsea Wald about the Biologische Versuchsanstalt in Vienna, published in the recent issue of Nautilus. From the article:

In 1911, Popular Science Monthly published an enthusiastic description of a young, private experimental-biology institute in Vienna, lauding its “remarkable scientific productivity resulting from only eight years of research.”

The author, zoologist Charles Lincoln Edwards, attributed the success of the Biologische Versuchsanstalt (Insitute of Experimental Biology) to its many advanced experimental devices. The institute, popularly known as the Vivarium, boasted a wide range of terrariums, which housed hundreds of organisms, from glow-worms to kangaroos, at strictly controlled temperatures, humidity, pressure, and light levels. That wasn’t always easy—the Vivarium had to adopt or invent many cutting-edge technologies, including an early air-conditioning system. It was “a pioneer in the use of the carbonic-acid cooling machine for maintaining a cold environment,” wrote Edwards. With the help of circulating salt water and a condenser, four rooms were kept at temperatures ranging from 5°C to 20°C.

The idea of using various apparatuses to control the living conditions of plants and animals for study was new; before that, scientists mainly observed their subjects in nature. At the Vivarium, the focus was on raising many generations under the same conditions in order to probe questions of heredity and development—a unique approach at the time, and one that many consider a precursor to today’s research on evolutionary developmental biology, or “evo-devo.”