Though the lab's name and address reference the town "Cold Spring Harbor" located in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, its headquarters are in fact physically located in the adjacent Nassau County village of Laurel Hollow.
The laboratory began its history in 1890 as an extension of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences; in 1904, the Carnegie Institution of Washington established the Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor on the site. In 1921, the station was reorganized as the Carnegie Institution Department of Genetics.
The Carnegie Institution Department of Genetics scientists at Cold Spring Harbor made innumerable contributions to the sciences of genetics, medicine, and the then-infant science of molecular biology, and in 1962 its facilities merged with those of The Brooklyn Institute's Biological Laboratory to create what is known today as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
In 1944 Barbara McClintock discovered at CSHL transposons ("jumping genes"), for which she received the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. One well-known aspect of the Laboratory is its hosting of the experiments of Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase, and the work of Max Delbrück and Salvador Luria. Another Nobel laureate scientist there was Richard J. Roberts. Nobel laureate James D. Watson (who co-discovered the double helix structure of DNA with Francis Crick) served as the Laboratory's Director and President for 35 years, and later assumed the role of Chancellor. In October 2007 Watson resigned as a result of controversial remarks about race made to The Sunday Times in the U.K. Currently, cancer biologist Bruce Stillman serves as laboratory President.
During the years 1910 to 1940, the laboratory was also the home of the Eugenics Record Office of biologist Charles B. Davenport and his assistant Harry H. Laughlin, two prominent American eugenicists of the period. In 1935 the Carnegie Institution sent a team to review their work, and as a result the ERO was ordered to stop all efforts. In 1939 the Institute withdrew funding for the ERO entirely, leading to its closure. Their reports, articles, charts, and pedigrees were considered scientific "facts" in their day, but have since been discredited. However, this closure came 15 years after its findings were incorporated into the National Origins Act (Immigration Act of 1924), which severely reduced the number of immigrants to America from southern and eastern Europe who, Harry Laughlin testified, were racially inferior than the Nordic immigrants from England and Germany.
Aside from its scientific mission, the laboratory is host to world-class scientific conferences on a variety of topics. The first of the annual Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Symposium on Quantitative Biology was held in 1934. The Symposium in 1960, Biological Clocks, was arguably the founding moment of the field of chronobiology. Now, over 24 meetings, in addition to the Symposium, for between 200 and 500 scientists, are held annually. The Banbury Center is a small conference center that holds discussion-style meetings for only 36 invited participants. These elite meetings cover often controversial topics in molecular biology and neuroscience. Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück founded the Phage Course in 1948, a course that trained many of the leaders of the new field of molecular genetics. The courses proliferated under Watson's guidance and each year some 28 advanced courses are held for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who travel to CSHL from throughout the world. The laboratory also offers many programs for students in high school and college in biotechnology and biology. The lab is particularly well known for its contributions towards the training of young scientists, notably through the establishment of its Undergraduate Research Program in 1959, its Dolan DNA Learning Center in 1988, and the founding of the Watson School of Biological Sciences in 1998. Additionally, Partners for the Future was founded in 1990 and is open to seniors from public and private high schools throughout Long Island. Over 1000 students apply each year while only 12 are interviewed and six or more are offered admission. Students in the program conduct original research with the aid of a scientist mentor.