Against all odds III: Cannery Row’s ‘Doc’ Ricketts

Edward Flanders Ricketts, 1939 By Source, Fair use,

If like me, you have been around the block a few times, you probably know who I am referring to. ‘Doc’ was the somewhat eccentric biologist central to several of John Steinbeck’s novels, specifically Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. He also served as inspiration for various characters in several other Steinbeck novels. Ever since Steinbeck was named as the 1962 Nobel Laureate in Literature, I have been a fan. I have read everything he’s written, or at least I think I have. Thus, ‘Doc’ was someone I felt I knew quite intimately. But I knew him as the fictionalized character portrayed in Steinbeck’s books, not as a biologist. And it turns out that he was much more of a biologist than he gets credit for.

Cover of Beyond the Outer Shores, by Eric Enno Tamm

A few years back, a good friend recommended that I read a book by the Vancouver author Eric Enno Tamm, Beyond the Outer Shores. It was through this book I learned that Ricketts was in fact quite significant as a biologist, albeit marginalized by academics due to the lack of a university degree. He did study zoology at the University of Illinois, where one of his mentors was Professor W. C. Allee (who first described the Allee effect). Ricketts floundered for a while after dropping out, and eventually ended up in Pacific Grove, California, where he set up Pacific Biological Laboratories together with a colleague in 1926. In 1930, PBL moved to Monterey, CA, and Ricketts became sole owner. He ran the lab until his death on May 11, 1948, a few days after his car was hit by a passenger train near the lab, and only 3 days before his 51st birthday. His personal life was rather tumultuous (described by Ricketts himself in the next book I read about him, Renaissance Man of Cannery Row, edited and annotated by Katharine A. Rodger, but I will focus on his biological legacy here.

Cover of “Rennaisance Man of Cannery Row”, edited by Katharine A. Rodger.

Ricketts documented his biological observations, and he observed intertidal life in an ecological context at a time when the discipline of ecology was still in its cradle. Of particular note was that he was pretty much alone in recognizing the negative impacts of overharvesting because he maintained records of the sardine fishery. He in fact predicted its collapse, an issue that is again at the forefront of California fisheries. He accompanied Steinbeck on a collecting trip to the Sea of Cortez, resulting in the publication of The Log from the Sea ofCortez, based on Ricketts’ diary. Interestingly, the book was originally published as Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research with Ricketts as co-author. The later version with Steinbeck as sole author was missing the phyletic catalogue that was part of the first publication .

Before this, Ricketts co-authored a book, Between Pacific Tides, first published in 1939 and now in its 5th edition. Because of his lack of a university degree, he had difficulty getting the book accepted by the publisher, but luckily the manuscript had been sent off shortly before a fire destroyed the PBL building and all its contents in November 1936. The loss included all of Ricketts’ notes, scientific literature, and poetry books. Between Pacific Tides was somewhat unique in that organisms were classified by habitat, rather than by taxonomy as was customary. It described the most common intertidal organisms, including their habits and ecology.

One of the many organisms named after Ed Ricketts.

Ricketts and Steinbeck had planned a second trip, this time to the west coast of British Columbia. It is this that is described in Tamm’s book Beyond the Outer Shores.
Ricketts is certainly remembered in Monterey, California, no doubt in large part thanks to the popularity of Steinbeck’s books. But this is perhaps more as the fictional character ‘Doc’ than as the man he truly was. More telling is that a number of organisms have been named after Ricketts, e.g., the blenny illustrated here. It is time that the real Edward F. Ricketts is more widely recognized for his contributions to marine ecology, I think.


About cinnabarreflections

B. Staffan Lindgren is Professor Emeritus at UNBC. Living in Nanaimo, BC. Jack of all trades trying to stay relevant.
This entry was posted in Biography, Marine ecology, Scientists and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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