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Aquariums and the History of the Laboratory in the Life Sciences

Project by Dr. Christian Reiß

The laboratory is the iconic space of science in general and scientific research with its experimental systems in particular. As the most eminent place for the production of scientific knowledge, the investigation of epistemic things and the production of technical objects, the laboratory has been in the focus of historians, philosophers and anthropologists of science.

This project presents a history of the laboratory in German zoology in the second half of the 19th century. In contrast to physics and chemistry, but also to physiology and anatomy, the laboratory in zoology was as much focused on providing what was considered to be natural living conditions for the animals as it was built for scientific research. Interested in questions of evolution, development and heredity, the zoological laboratory is fundamentally sensitive to the relation between organism and environment and essentially thought to provide conditions for undisturbed development and behaviour of the species under investigation. Thus, I argue, the laboratory in zoology is as much related to the zoological and botanical garden as it is to the laboratories in physics and chemistry.

Combining spatial approaches to the history of science with a focus on scientific practices and human-animal relation, the laboratory in the life sciences is conceptualized as a techno-natural assemblage. It is viewed as a research space as much as it is understood as a space inhabited by human and non-human actors, which all contribute to its co-construction of a hybrid space between nature and technology.

Related projects

The Mexican Axolotl and the Early History of Laboratory Animals, 1600-today
Julius Schaxel and the History of Developmental and Theoretical Biology
Cinematographic Methods in the History of Embryology


Reiß, Christian (2020): Der Axolotl. Ein Labortier im Heimaquarium, 1864-1914, Göttingen: Wallstein.

Reiß, Christian (2017): The Biologische Versuchsanstalt as a Techno-natural Assemblage: Artificial Environments, Animal Husbandry, and the Challenges of Experimental Biology, in: Müller, Gerd B. (Hrsg.): Vivarium. Experimental, Quantitative, and Theoretical Biology at Vienna’s Biologische Versuchsanstalt, Boston: MIT Press, S. 115–132.

Reiß, Christian und Mareike Vennen (2014): Muddy Waters. Das Aquarium als Experimentalraum (proto)ökologischen Wissens, 1850-1877, in: Espahangizi, Kijan und Barbara Orland (Hrsg.): Stoffe in Bewegung. Beiträge zu einer Wissenschaftsgeschichte der materiellen Welt, Berlin: Diaphanes, S. 121–142.

Reiß, Christian (2012): Gateway, Instrument, Environment: The Aquarium as a Hybrid Space between Animal Fancying and Experimental Zoology, NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 24, S. 309–336.

Reiß, Christian (2012): Wie die Zoologie das Füttern lernte. Die Ernährung von Tieren in der Zoologie im 19. Jahrhundert, Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 35, S. 286–299.

  1. Fakultät für Philosophie, Kunst-, Geschichts- und Gesellschaftswissenschaften
  2. Institut für Philosophie