Tuck Lee & Hagfish Embryos

With that bit of introduction to Quock Tuck Lee, we now turn our attention to describing the biology of hagfish, and the research interests of a select group of scientists, those comparative embryologists, interested in understanding vertebrate evolution. The following paragraphs describing hagfish is taken from the book Fish Stories Alleged and Experienced: With a Little History Natural and Unnatural, written by Charles Frederick Holder and David Starr Jordan, and published in 1909.


"The hagfish or slime-eel looks very much like a lamprey, which is indeed its nearest neighbor in the system of classification. It is long, slim, cylindrical, worm-shaped, without limbs and without jaws, without eyes and without scales. Its skin is loose, like a scarf, and its surface is covered with slime. The different species live in the cold seas, Arctic and Antarctic, and some of them go down to great depths. One species is common along the coast of California and is abundant in Monterey Bay. To this point naturalists from the east and from Europe have sometimes come to the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory of Stanford for the special purpose of studying its structure and development. It lays its large egg, inclosed in a flattish egg-case, on the bottom of the sea. To each end of the egg are attached barbed threads, which serve to anchor the eggs to the bottom of the sea. Curiously enough, the male fish at once proceeds to devour these eggs wherever he can find them. For a long time all the eggs, which were secured, were found in the stomachs of the male fish."

"The hagfish is the only fish which lives wholly as a parasite. It fastens itself to the throat or eye or other soft place of a large fish; with the knife-like hooked teeth on its tongue it rasps a hole into the muscles of the fish. It then proceeds to devour the great lateral muscles which constitute the great part of the flesh of the fish, always avoiding the nerves and never breaking through into the body cavity itself. I have seen large fishes still alive with half their weight gone, living husks, floating about in the sea. When one of these husks is lifted from the water, the hagfishes inside of it slip out almost instantly and hide themselves in the sea. The hagfishes are especially likely to attack fishes held in the gill nets, and in this way they do considerable injury."

"They were hated of the fishermen until Pacific Grove was made the seat of a scientific station, and scientific men as George Clinton Price, Bashford Dean, Franz Doflein and Howard Ayres, ready to pay more for these slimy, repulsive creatures than good fishes are worth. Now the pursuit of the hagfish at Pacific Grove has become something of an industry of itself. The California hagfish is plum-color or purplish, and on the sides of its neck it has about ten gill holes, instead of seven, found in lampreys. Other hagfishes, similar in character, are found in Chili, Japan and New Zealand…By the study of such forms we get the key to the understanding of the complex structures of the higher forms." (19)

As previously mentioned, hagfish embryos are notoriously difficult to locate in the marine environment within which inhabit. As described by Nicholas D. Holland (2007):

"In spite of more than a century of effort by numerous biologists, hagfish embryos have only rarely come to hand. In California, embryos of E. stouti were first collected from Monterey Bay in the closing years of the nineteenth century when several biologists—most notably Bashford Dean of Columbia University—dredged up embryo-containing eggs with the help of the local Chinese fishermen. When the bottom-dwelling hagfish were hooked, they secreted copious mucus that sometimes ensnared deposited eggs, such that the fish, slime and eggs could be brought to the surface together." (20)

Those scientists mentioned by Holder and Jordan, who were successful in obtaining hagfish embryos from the waters of the Monterey Bay during the 1890’s, George C. Price, Howard Ayers, Franz Doflein, and Bashford Dean, acquired them through the skillful efforts of Tuck Lee. Professor MacFarland mentions that Dr. George C. Price, Professor of Zoology, Stanford University, was the first to secure embryos from Tuck Lee. (21) Next, Howard Ayers, then Director of the Lake Laboratory, Milwaukee, Wisconsin visiting the lab in 1893, secured several embryos through the efforts of Tuck Lee. According to Ayers (1894):

On arriving at the station, it became at once apparent that I should depend upon the Chinese fishermen for the collection of my material. (22)

Next, Bashford Dean, a Professor of Zoology, Columbia University, New York who visited the lab during the summer of 1896 and 1899, obtained hagfish embryos during his first summer visits. Dean obtained, through the services of Tuck Lee and the Chinese fishermen from the Point Alones fishing village, a total of approximately 800 eggs, the largest number of embryos to ever be collected from the Monterey Bay. To Dean’s good fortune approximately 150 of those 800 eggs contained developing embryos. On the basis of these specimens, Dean was able to provide over 130 drawings outlining the stages of development of Eptatretus stouti. (23) According to Holland (2007):

These embryos, which Dean studied primarily as whole mounts, were the basis for his extensive monograph on hagfish embryology, which is still the definitive treatment of the subject. (24)

Dean’s acquisition of hagfish embryos was followed by Franz Doflein, a scientist visiting from the University of Munich, Germany, during the summer of 1898, who obtained several embryos of Eptatretus stouti through the services of Tuck Lee. (25)

These comparative embryologists who were successful in obtaining hagfish embryos, conducted their scientific investigations and published their research findings in scientific journals. Within many of these scientists published writings’, there is mention, and often much praise, of the fishing skills and character of the Chinese fisherman, Tuck Lee (Doflein, 1900), (26) (Dean, 1903, 1904), (27), (28) (MacFarland, 1902), (29) (Greene, 1925). (30) According to these researchers, it is Tuck Lee who possessed the necessary skill to locate and retrieve the very elusive and much coveted specimens of hagfish embryos. In fact, through the efforts of this skillful and knowledgeable Chinese fisherman, Tuck Lee, was secured, for the noted naturalist Bashford Dean, the most important collection of specimens of hagfish embryos that exist to this day. Much of our current understanding of hagfish embryology is the result of the embryos that Tuck Lee and the Point Alones Chinese community collected for Dean and other scientist who were conducting research at the Hopkins Sea Side Laboratory.

In his writing, Dean (1904) explains that his success at obtaining this collection of embryos is clearly the result of the skillful efforts of Tuck Lee:

"Hitherto the bay of Monterey has provided all myxinoid embryos recorded, but in the latter locality, one may add in parenthesis, the collection of hag-fish eggs has been due to the labors of practically a single fisherman, Ah Tack Lee, whose energetic help is thus almost a sine qua non." (31)

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of “sine qua non” is the following: as being something absolutely indispensable or essential. Not only were Tuck Lee’s efforts indispensable and essential for locating hagfish embryos for Dean, but his skill also proved critical in efforts associated with locating the eggs of a cartilaginous fish, known as Chimaera.


(19) Holder, Charles Frederick and Jordan, David Starr. (1909). Fish stories alleged and experienced: with a little history natural and unnatural. New York, H. Holt and Company.

(20) Holland, Nicholas D. (2007). Hagfish embryos again—the end of a long drought. BioEssays. 29 (9) 833-836.

(21) MacFarland, F. M. (1902). The Hopkins Seaside Laboratory. Journal of Applied Microscopy and Laboratory Methods. 5 (7) 1869-1875.

(22) Ayers, Howard. (1894). Bdellostoma Dombeyi Lac. Biological Lectures Delivered at the Marine Biological Laboratory of Wood's Holl. Summer Sessions of 1893 and 1894. Boston: Ginn & Company.

(23) Dean, Bashford. (1899). On the embryology of Bdellostoma stouti. A general account of myxinoid development from the egg and segmentation to hatching. In Festschrift zum 70ten Geburststag Carl von Kupffer 220–276 (Gustav Fischer, Jena).

(24) Holland, Nicholas D. (2007) Hagfish embryos again—the end of a long drought. BioEssays, 29 (9) 833-836.

(25) Doflein F. (1899). Zur Entwicklungsgeschichte von Bdellostoma stouti Lock. Verh Deutsche zool Gesellsch 1899: 21–30.

(26) Doflein, Franz. (1900). Von den Antillen zum fernen Westen: reiseskizzen eines naturforschers. XII. Kapitel Die Meeresfauna von Kalifornien.

(27) Dean, Bashford. (1903). An Outline of the Development of a Chimaeroid. The Biological Bulletin. By Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole, Mass.) 4 (5): 270-286.

(28) Dean, Bashford. (1904). Notes on Japanese Myxinoids With 1 plate Publ Jan 28th 1904 The Journal Of The College Of Science, Imperial University Of Tokyo, Vol. 19. Published By The University. Tokyo, Japan.

(29) MacFarland, F. M. (1902). The Hopkins Seaside Laboratory. Journal of Applied Microscopy and Laboratory Methods. 5 (7) 1869-1875.

(30) Greene, C. W. (1925). Notes on the Olfactory and Other Physiological Reactions of the California Hagfish. Science. 61 (1568) 68-70.

(31) Dean, Bashford. (1904). Notes on Japanese Myxinoids With 1 plate Publ Jan 28th 1904 The Journal Of The College Of Science, Imperial University Of Tokyo, Vol. 19. Published By The University. Tokyo, Japan.