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Ed Ricketts

1897-1948

A feisty, brilliant, and often complex marine biologist, Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts was born on May 14, 1897 in Chicago, Illinois. His father was an accountant for an art gallery and his mother was an upper-middle class woman from Boston. The oldest of two children, Ricketts had a younger sister, Frances. At age six his uncle gave him some natural history curios and an old zoology textbook, an act that sealed his fate as a biologist.

In high school, Ricketts was an excellent student, taking all of the biology and zoology courses he could.

Quiet and very likeable, he attended the Illinois State Normal University for one year (1915-1916), but his work was only average and, feeling restricted, he left. He traveled to Texas where he found work at a country club in El Paso.

When the United States entered World War I (1917) Ricketts tried several times to enlist but was rejected each time for flat feet. He finally got in the Army, where he served as a clerk in the Medical Corps. After his discharge he entered the University of Chicago (Summer, 1919). However, over a three year period (1919-1922) he attended only seven quarters. He took classes in philosophy, zoology, German and Spanish. His grades were good and he received an “Honorable Mention for Excellence,” but he left the university without taking a degree in 1922. Ed Ricketts, marine biologist, would never earn a college degree, but he was deeply influenced by one of his professors, Dr. Warder Clyde Allee (1885-1955), one of America’s first ecologists.

In 1923, at age twenty-five, Ricketts traveled to California with one of his college roommates, A. E. Galigher and together they started the Pacific Biological Laboratories in Pacific Grove. The lab supplied slides and preserved specimens for research institutions and schools. Eventually, Ricketts became sole owner and would spend much of his time combing the waters of the Pacific and inland rivers looking for specimens.

Pacific Biological Laboratory moved to 740 Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, California in 1928. In his lab Ricketts pursued his own research on marine life and wrote scientific papers on the evolutionary process.

An outgoing, talkative man, Ricketts loved all kinds of marine life. In dealing with all kinds of people he had the ability to move among fishermen and winos as easily as among scientists and businessmen.

Ricketts, his wife, Anna, and their three children moved several times in the Pacific Grove and Carmel areas. After marital problems developed Ricketts moved into his Monterey lab in 1936. On November 25, 1936, a fire started at the Del Mar Cannery, next door to the lab. The lab and most of it’s contents were destroyed. However, his manuscript “Between the Pacific Tides” was saved because it had already been sent to Stanford University for publication. It would be this textbook that would make Ed Ricketts’ influence on the next generation of marine biologists and many thousands of ordinary people who wanted to know a litte (or a lot) about the fascinating organisms living along the California coast.

Ricketts’ lab had served as a meeting place for local intellectuals, artists, and writers, including myth expert Joseph Campbell and writer Henry Miller. Many of his friends helped him rebuild the lab and replace it’s contents.

In October, 1930, Ricketts met a young writer named John Steinbeck (1902-1968) at the cottage of a friend in Carmel, California. This began a close friendship that would last until Ricketts’ death in 1948. Ricketts taught Steinbeck about marine biology and Steinbeck used Ricketts as the inspiration for several of his most memorable characters. He became the inspiration for Doc in “Cannery Row” (1945), Doc Burton in “In Dubious Battle” (1936) and Casey in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939), among others.

Ricketts was more than someone else’s inspiration. His ecological textbook of intertidal marine life, “Between the Tides” was published in 1939, and today the fifth edition of this text is still being used as a standard text at many colleges and universities.

From March 14 to April 18, 1940, Ricketts and Steinbeck traveled to the Gulf of California, which later resulted in Steinbeck’s writing “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” (1941). Although Steinbeck relied heavily on Ricketts’ notes to write this book, Ricketts was given no credit when the book came out.

Ricketts developed a filing system for his marine life specimens that would make an index of every known marine life form from the Gulf of California to Alaska. He also produced the most in-depth study of the habits and migration of sardines that had ever been compiled.

Although a marine biologist Ricketts was also an eclectic thinker who did not lose touch with life. He loved good food, good drink, and women, as well as art, music, literature, philosophy and friends. He loved Bach, Mozart, and Gregorian chants and he could discuss modern art with ease. He was known for quoting the poetry of Walt Whitman at great length.

Ricketts would use a combination of metaphysics and scientific method in order to bring together unrelated elements into a unified whole. He referred to this holistic idea as the “toto-picture.” He tried to achieve his ends through “non-teleological thinking”, a type of thought where the search for cause and effect are replaced by a Zen-like acceptance of things as they are.

Ed Rickett’s marriage to his wife Anna ended in the mid-1930s. He continued to live at his lab. From 1941 to 1947 he lived with a companion, Toni Jackson. He married Alice Campbell on January 2, 1948, in Barstow, California although his divorce from Anna was never finalized.

On May 8, 1948, while driving his old Packard across some railroad tracks, his car was struck by a train. The car was dragged several hundred feet. He suffered severe head and chest injuries and remained in a coma until his death on May 11. He was three days short of his fifty-first birthday.

His funeral services were conducted in a small chapel overlooking the bay with more than 200 people in attendance, including many of Monterey’s down and out who considered Ricketts a benefactor and a friend.

The work of Ed Ricketts has inspired several generations of marine biologists, especially with his work on the effect of wave shock on marine animals and plants. His wholistic way of thinking about life on earth led him to propound the ecological sentiments described so well by Steinbeck in his book “The Log From the Sea of Cortez.” His influence on the development of the environmental movement in America, though subtle, was important, both within the scientific community and among the general public. Works on Ricketts’ ecological ideas include “The Outer Shores” (1978), a 2-volume collection of his scientific and philosophical essays.

On July 14, 1994, the City of Pacific Grove renamed High Street (location of his first lab). It is now known as Ricketts Row.

Web Links

  • There’s biography of Ricketts at an extensive Steinbeck in Pacific Grove website.
  • Steinbeck’s description of his first meeting with Ricketts, from an introduction to “The Log from the Sea of Cortez, is on the web, along with an explanation of what Steinbeck called their “speculative metaphysics.”.
  • There’s a photo and a short biographical sketch of Ricketts in California Views.
  • There’s an interesting essay about Ricketts both as a writer and as a model for Steinbeck’s characters on the web.

Written by Steve Gosden