ISSN 1188-603X

No. 170 July 23, Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2

KATHERINE ESAU (1898-1997)

Dr. Katherine Esau died at the age of 99 on June 4 at her home in Santa Barbara, California. An obituary can be found in the June 18, 1997 issue of the New York Times. Dr. Ray Evert will be writing a biographical note for an upcoming issue of the Plant Science Bulletin. She will be remembered by countless students as the author of Plant Anatomy (1953, 1965) and Anatomy of Seed Plants (1960, 1977), which are among the most influential textbooks in structural botany the second half of this century. [In fact, I used the latter when I taught plant anatomy this last spring!]

Katherine Esau was born on April 3, 1898, in the City of Yekaterinoslav in the Ukraine (Dnepropetrovsk in the USSR) -- an agricultural city created by Katherine the Great and populated largely by German Mennonite settlers (including Dr. Esau's great-grandfather Aron Esau). She began college studies at the Golitsin Women's Agricultural College in Moscow, but the Revolution interrupted her schooling at the end of her first year. World War I slowed the Revolution but at its end, her father was removed from his post by the "revolutionary" government and the family fled to Berlin a day before her father was named an "enemy of the country."

Dr. Esau's college education continued at the Berlin Landwirtschaftliche Hochschule (Agricultural College of Berlin) and at Hohenheim, near Stuttgart, culminating with some additional studies in plant breeding with the famous geneticist Erwin Baur. She went to a model seed breeding station for wheat in Northern Germany and from there to America in mid-October 1922, settling in Reedley, CA. Dr. Esau was hired by the Spreckels Sugar Company at Spreckels near Salinas, CA to develop a sugarbeet resistant to the curly-top disease. The chairman of the Botany Division at University of California-Davis, Dr. W. W. Robbins, and the chairman of the Truck Crops Division, Dr. H. A. Jones, visited Spreckels to learn about curly-top disease research. Upon inquiring, she was accepted to continue her graduate work at Davis using sugarbeet stocks from Spreckels. Professor T.H. Goodspeed, the Nicotiana cytologist in the Botany Department at Berkeley, was chosen as her adviser since Davis did not have a graduate program at the time. Dr. Esau decided to conduct an anatomical study of the effect of the curly-top virus upon the plant after leafhoppers were banned to permit the development of other sugarbeet research. Dr. Esau was awarded the Ph.D. in botany in December 1931.

Upon graduation, Dr. Robbins offered Dr. Esau the position of Instructor in Botany and Junior Botanist in the Experiment Station of the College of Agriculture. Dr. Esau was assigned to teach Plant Anatomy, Systematic Botany, Morphology of Crop Plants, and Microtechnique. Dr. Esau served 6 years - the maximum number - in each rank until the attainment of the full professorship in 1949, when she reached the age of 51.

Dr. Esau's research emphasized exploring the so-called phloem-limited viruses. In the early 1960s, Dr. Esau became one of the first plant electron microscopists, and greatly contributed to the understanding of virus-plant host relations. She has published books and numerous articles in this area of research.

She conducted much of this work in a building intended to serve as a garage at UC-Davis - a building that housed the Botany Department in part, during her four years as a graduate student at Davis. She still occupied this area when she was named to the National Academy of Sciences in 1957. She moved to her first proper laboratory, in Robbins Hall, in 1960. Dr. Esau moved to Santa Barbara in 1963 to continue her collaborative research on the phloem with Dr. Vernon Cheadle. In 1989, she was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George Bush.

An address summarizing her interesting life was given by Dr. Ray Evert in 1985. A revised version published first in the Plant Science Bulletin is available at the Botanical Society of America site at URL:

Scott D. Russell
Department of Botany & Microbiology
& Noble Electron Microscopy Lab
University of Oklahoma,
Norman, OK 73019-0245 USA

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