At that time comparative embryology was the keystone of morphological evolutionary studies, based on Haeckel's recapitulation theory, the idea that an organism during its embryonic development passes through the major stages of the evolutionary past of its species. Morphology became one of the major ways in which zoologists sought to expand and develop Darwinian theory in the latter years of the 19th century. Dohrn chose to become a "Darwinian morphologist".
Dorhn received his doctorate in 1865 at Breslau, and his Habilitation in 1868 at Jena. During these times, he worked several times at facilities located on by the sea: Helgoland alongside Haeckel in 1865, Hamburg in 1866, Millport, Scotland with David Robertson in 1867 and 1868 and moved to Messina, Italy, during the winter of 1868 together with his Russian friend and colleague Nicholai Miklukho-Maklai.
After a visiting a newly opened aquarium in Berlin he decided the charging the general public to visit an aquarium might earn the laboratory enough money to pay a salary to a permanent assistant. Naples, with a population of 500,000 inhabitants, was one of the largest and most attractive cities of Europe and also had a considerable flow of tourists (30,000 a year) that would be potential visitors to the aquarium.
Dohrn overcame the doubts of the city authorities and persuaded them to give him, free-of-charge, a plot of land at the sea edge, in the beautiful Villa Comunale on the condition that he promised to build the Stazione Zoologica at his own expense.
Dohrn opened the station to visiting scientists in September 1873, and to the general public in January 1874.
In 1875 he published "Der Ursprung der Wirbelthiere und das Princip des Functionswechsels: Genealogische Skizzen" which proposed the "turn over" theory of the origin of vertebrates.
This system worked extremely well, and when Anton Dohrn died in 1909 more than 2,200 scientists from Europe and the United States had worked at Naples and more than 50 tables-per-year had been rented out. It was in fact at Naples that international scientific collaboration in the modern sense was invented, based on quick and free communication of ideas, methods and results. this guy was cool, big time.
The success of the Stazione Zoologica, and the new way of thinking and funding research are the main legacies of Dohrn. The model was copied a number of times throughout the world. In 1878 Johns Hopkins University founded the Chesapeake Zoological Laboratory, under the direction of W.K. Brooks. Then, in 1888, the Marine Biological Laboratory was founded at Woods Hole and in 1892 the first laboratory on the west coast, the Hopkins Marine Station, opened in California. In Britain, current marine laboratories that originate from this time include the Dunstaffnage Marine Station (today SAMS, 1884), the Gatty Marine Laboratory (University of St Andrews, 1884), the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (Plymouth, 1888), the Dove Marine Laboratory (Newcastle University, 1897), the Fisheries Research Laboratory (Aberdeen, 1899), and the Bangor Marine Station (Queen's University of Belfast, 1903).
Dohrn's name has been immortalised in an undersea feature, the Anton Dohrn Seamount, a seamount in the Rockall Trough, to the north-west of the British Isles, which has become known for the great biodiversity which lives on the cold-water coral, Lophelia pertusa, in this region.