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The Academy's association with Cape Cod science dates to its earliest days. In 1873, the Swiss-born naturalist Louis Agassiz, one of the Academy's incorporators, set up the Anderson School of Natural History on the Elizabeth Islands directly opposite Woods Hole. The 1880's brought about the creation of the National Marine Fisheries and the Marine Biological Laboratory. Distinguished biologist Frank R. Lillie served as director and then president of the Laboratory and concurrently president of the NAS from 1935 to 1939. In 1929, an Academy Committee's report considering "the share of the United States of America in a worldwide program of Oceanographic Research" recommended the creation of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
The first study performed by the Academy in Woods Hole was in 1956. Known as the Nobska Study, it concerned the development of anti-submarine weapons defense and took place at the Whitney Estate on Little Harbor. The Academy rented this facility for a number of years and then the Fenno House on the Quissett Campus of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In 1971 the Academy moved to other rented summer quarters northwest to a point jutting into Quissett Harbor off Buzzards Bay, the present location of the Jonsson Center.
The new rental house was owned by Mr. Howard Houston, who had served as Minister to India in the 1950's under President Eisenhower. The building's handsome collection of oriental carpets and 18th century British and American furniture were included in the Academy's purchase of the property in 1975. The Center is operated year-round as an extension of the conference facilities in Washington D.C. and Irvine, California which support the extensive meetings requirements of the NAS, NRC, NAE, and IOM.