E.F. Ricketts' Biography


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Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts was born on May 14, 1897 on the northwest side of Chicago. He attended Illinois State Normal University for one year, but left to see something of the world. He served a tour of duty in the Army Medical Corps during WWI, and entered the University of Chicago on his return (in October 1942, Ricketts was called back into the Army, serving in the VD clinic at the Presidio). He attended classes sporadically between 1919 and 1922, taking classes in zoology, philosophy, Spanish and German, but left without taking a degree. He was, however, profoundly influenced by one of his teachers, W.C. Allee, an ecological theorist whose 1931 treatise Animal Aggregations dealt with the universality of social behavior among animals (including man) and the theory of social transition, that animals act differently in groups than as individuals. 


Bust of Ed Ricketts by Jesse Corsaut

Ricketts Comes to California
In 1923, Ricketts came to California with his Chicago roommate, A.E.Galigher, and opened Pacific Biological Laboratories.

Located at the corner of Fountain Avenue and High Street (now called Ricketts Row) in a one-story board and batten building, the lab supplied biological specimens and slides to schools and research institutions. Eventually, Galigher moved to Berkeley, and Ricketts became the sole owner of the business.

In 1925, Ricketts published an article, Vagabonding Through Dixie, (Travel, June 1925), which described his walk from Chicago through the South. PBL moved to 740 Ocean View Avenue in Monterey in 1928 (the street was later renumbered, and the lab's address changed to 800; it was renamed Cannery Row in 1958).

During the 1920s, Ricketts lived with his wife, Anna, and three children at several homes in Pacific Grove and Carmel. Even after Ricketts moved the business to Monterey, he maintained a P.O. box at the Pacific Grove post office. Ironically, he took up full-time residence at the Monterey lab in 1936, and several months later, on November 25th, a fire started in the adjacent Del Mar Cannery, destroying the lab and most of its contents (including Ricketts extensive marine ecology library and family heirlooms). Fortunately, the manuscript of Between Pacific Tides had already been sent to Stanford University. The lab was a meeting place for local artists, writers and scholars, including Joseph Campbell and Henry Miller. After the fire, many of Ricketts' friends helped him reconstruct the lab and replace its contents. 

Photo of Ed Ricketts courtesy California Views: The Pat Hathaway Collection
Ricketts Meets Steinbeck
In October 1930, Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck met at the cottage of a friend in Carmel, although Steinbeck told the story of their meeting at a dentist's office in “About Ed Ricketts” in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. They had an immediate rapport, and the two shared their experiences and ideas in what might best be described as a commensal relationship. Ricketts was a major influence on Steinbeck's writing and philosophy, and, as Jackson Benson notes in his exhaustive biography The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: Viking, 1984), the main themes in Steinbeck's writings “were developed and nurtured in the rich soil of their mutual enthusiasm for exploring ideas and their implications.” The period of time that Steinbeck and Ricketts were in each other's company, between 1930 and 1941, was one of the most productive periods of Steinbeck's writing. Ricketts was the inspiration for Doc in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, Doc Burton in In Dubious Battle, Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, Doctor Winter in The Moon is Down, as well as characters in several other works. 

Ricketts' Work
Ricketts was not just a catalyst for Steinbeck's writing; Stanford University published his ecological handbook of intertidal marine life, Between Pacific Tides, in 1939. The 5th edition is still used as a textbook at many universities. From March 14 to April 18, 1940, Ricketts and Steinbeck took their famous sojourn on the Western Flyer to the Gulf of California, which resulted in the book The Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck kept no journal of the trip, except in his head, and relied heavily on Ricketts' notes when he wrote the narrative half of the book.

In fact, Ricketts' philosophical "Essay on Non-Teleological Thinking" was revised by Steinbeck as the Easter Sunday chapter.The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) differs from The Sea of Cortez (1941) in that the phyletic catalogue that Ricketts compiled is omitted, as is Ricketts' name as co-author. It also includes the poignant quasi-biographical essay, About Ed Ricketts. Later editions have reinstated Ricketts' name on the title page. He developed a filing system for the specimens he gathered which, according to his friend Ritchie Lovejoy, “when finished [would be] a complete and comprehensive survey and index of every known marine animal from the Gulf of California to Alaska." Lovejoy also noted that Ricketts produced the “most comprehensive study of sardine habits and migration ever compiled. There is nothing else to compare with it in detail, observation and conclusion."

See a selection from BSU's Edward Ricketts pamphlet.
The Man vs the Myth
While "Doc" of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday is a character based on Steinbeck's close friend Ed Ricketts, there are distinct and pronounced differences between the fictional hero and the real man. Many of Ricketts' quirks and traits become part of Doc's persona, and the distinctions become quite blurred, perhaps due to Steinbeck's great capacity for capturing telling points of character and description through apparently superficial detail. Or perhaps Steinbeck's portrayal tells more about himself than about his friend. The Ricketts we see through Steinbeck's eyes, the solitary bachelor, "concupiscent as a rabbit," who spent most of his time interacting with the fringe of conventional society, contrasts with the serious, hard-working scientist who spent most of his energies searching for his ultimate goal, the truth. Steinbeck may have created this persona to demonstrate that the traditional values cherished by middle-class society were invalid, using the Ed/Doc character to point out the disparity between sinner and saint. Whatever Steinbeck's motivation, the life and lore of Ed and Doc have melded together, leaving the real Ricketts clouded in mystique. Ultimately, one must realize that Steinbeck was creating art, not writing history, and the disparities between fact and fiction are simply literary license. 
Ricketts' Philosophy
In addition to being a marine biologist, Ricketts was a philosopher. Using a unique combination of scientific method and metaphysics, he attempted to tie together apparently unrelated elements into a unified whole. He referred to this holistic idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts as the "toto picture." He called the means by which he tried to achieve understanding the philosophy of "breaking through," from a line in Robinson Jeffers' "Roan Stallion," and attempted to achieve his ends through a method he called "non-teleological thinking" or is thinking, in which the search for cause and effect are abandoned for a Zen-like acceptance of things as they are. 
Ricketts' Later Years
After the breakup of Ricketts' marriage in the mid 1930s, he lived at the lab with Toni Jackson, who was his companion from 1941 to 1947. Although Ricketts' divorce from Anna was never finalized, on January 2, 1948, he married Alice Campbell in Barstow, California. After Steinbeck moved to New York in 1941, he and Ricketts rarely saw each other, although they corresponded up until the time of Ricketts' death. The two had plans to take another collecting trip, this time to the Queen Charlotte Islands, when Ricketts' car was struck by the Del Monte Express on May 8, 1948. He died on May 11th. 
Ricketts' Legacy
Ed Ricketts has left his legacy on the Monterey Peninsula and beyond. His work has inspired several generations of biologists, particularly, as John E. McCosker has noted, his benchmark theses on the effect of wave shock and tides upon animals and plants. Despite the fact that his manuscripts were destroyed in the 1936 fire and never rewritten, students at Hopkins Marine Station were familiar with them and built upon Ricketts' ideas. The Outer Shores, a two-volume collection of Ricketts' scientific and philosophical essays (edited by his friend and fellow marine biologist Joel W. Hedgpeth) was published in 1978, and is essential reading for a better understanding of the man and his ideas. A sea spider, Pycnogonum rickettsi, originally collected from local anemones by Ricketts, was named for him. Recently, two species of sea slugs were named after Ricketts and Steinbeck, Catriona rickettsi and Eubranchus steinbecki. To learn more about these nudibranchs, visit The Slug Site. In 1979, over 30 years after Ricketts' death, Moss Landing Marine Laboratory christened their research vessel, a 35-foot lobster boat, the RV Ed Ricketts (the boat was retired in 2003 and returned to Maine waters). On July 14, 1994, the City of Pacific Grove renamed High Street, where the first lab once stood, Ricketts Row. 

This digital version of John Steinbeck's Pacific Grove is copyright © 1995 - 2009 by Esther Trosow. All rights reserved.

All reproductions of this guide, in part or in whole, require the written permission of the author.
Most of the historical photos included are from California Views: The Pat Hathaway Collection.
Except where noted, all other photos are by Esther Trosow.

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Last updated May 8, 2009.