Ecology Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts
Rafe Sagarin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0088


Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts (b. 1897–d. 1948) was a marine ecologist, author, and philosopher who made his living in the early and mid-20th century as a supplier of biological specimens to schools and laboratories. He attended Illinois State Normal University and later the University of Chicago, where he studied with the ecologist Warder Allee, although he never attained a degree from either institution. Following his studies he relocated to Pacific Grove, California, and later to nearby Monterey, where he lived and worked in a small wooden shack, the headquarters of his biological supply business, Pacific Biological Laboratories. Ricketts’s lab has attained legendary status as the nexus of an early-20th-century intellectual bohemian culture in California where poets, writers, artists, musicians, scientists, and students, as well as men and women of less respectable societal status, would gather to socialize and philosophize over science, music, poetry, and art. It was here, as well as in extended field expeditions to the “outer shores” of the Pacific Northwest in Canada and Alaska and to the Gulf of California, that Ricketts formed strong friendships with a diverse range of intellectuals, some of whom would become highly influential voices in 20th-century arts and letters, including the writers John Steinbeck and Henry Miller, the mythologist Joseph Campbell, and the experimental musician John Cage. Ricketts is credited for having a strong influence on these thinkers, especially Steinbeck and Campbell. Ricketts died on 11 May 1948, four days after his car was struck by the Del Monte Express train on an uncontrolled crossing near Cannery Row. Until recently, Ricketts remained somewhat enigmatic, enmeshed in a series of seeming contradictions that surrounded his persona, causing Susan Beegel (in Rodger 2006, cited under Renewed Attention on Ricketts) to note that Ricketts “is paradoxically famous and yet relatively unknown.” He was at the same time a real scientist and a fictional caricature, owing to his depiction in characters such as “Doc” in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row and at least six other Steinbeck works, each of which carried varying degrees of relationship to the actual Ricketts. He was an outsider to academia, not even attaining a bachelor’s degree, who nonetheless provided data, insight, and guidance to students and scientists in his time and across generations to the present. He was a rational scientist who loved and conducted scholarship on music, poetry, and art. He was a serious biologist who painstakingly studied the most-minute and underappreciated forms, as well as a mystic who delved deeply into Eastern philosophy. He was a transcendentalist in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, but one who believed that “breaking through” to a higher state occurred not through solitary inward reflection but through direct and open interaction and even conflict with other people. Finally, Ricketts relied on strong collaborations and community in his science during a time when science was largely conducted by individuals building egoistic kingdoms. Chuck Baxter, Susan Shillinglaw, Bill Gilly, Eric Enno Tamm, and Peter Coonradt provided background information and suggestions on versions of this article. Peter Van Coutren of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies was extremely helpful in tracking down sources. Don Kohrs of the Harold A. Miller library at Hopkins Marine Station also provided abundant source materials through the library’s collections and his own research. I thank the Stanford University Libraries Department of Special Collections for access to the Ricketts archive on multiple occasions.

Renewed Attention on Ricketts

Ricketts’s reputation and contributions to science grew quietly after his death in 1948, leading the author of Davis 2004 to note that he was “at the same time the most influential and least recognized ecologists of the 20th century.” In the 21st century, Ricketts has been lifted from obscurity by three interrelated factors. The first is simply that several works of careful scholarship have brought the body of Ricketts’s unpublished work and underappreciated relationships to light, exposing the vastness of his mind and his prescient ideas. Previously, there was a raft of Ricketts’s scholarship in the 1970s, especially works by Richard Astro (Astro 1973, Astro 1976) and Ricketts’s collaborator Joel Hedgpeth (Hedgpeth 1978), who published a small, two-volume set that includes several of Ricketts’s unpublished works, but all these volumes quickly went out of press and are not easily obtained. The more recent contributions include two volumes by Katharine Rodger—Rodger 2002, which publishes and comments on Ricketts’s extensive correspondence with a wide range of contemporary scientists, intellectuals, and friends, and Rodger 2006, which publishes with commentary several of Ricketts’s unpublished essays and travelogues. Along with a full biography of Ricketts by Eric Enno Tamm (Tamm 2004), we have for the first time a complete picture of the reach of Ricketts’s interests and influence. Second, Ricketts’s legacy, planted as seeds in works by his more famous friends and contemporaries, has only begun to produce fruit in recent years. The reputation of John Steinbeck, which declined through his later years of marginal works and for some years suffered from literary criticism that viewed his work as lightweight and uncoordinated, began to shift positively in the 1970s, and along with the reexamination of Steinbeck came a renewed respect from scholars such as Richard Astro (Astro 1973) for Ricketts’s influential role in shaping the writer’s work and worldview. The influence of Ricketts on the mythologist Joseph Campbell also emerged with a renewed interest in that scholar’s work, such as in Larsen and Larsen 1991. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Star Wars movies attempted to illustrate Campbell’s idea of a “universal hero myth” that all cultures adopt and adapt to their needs, as outlined in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The influence of Ricketts during Campbell’s formative investigations of this thesis is apparent in their correspondence and reflections on their travels together to the shores of the Pacific Northwest, a connection fully mapped out in Tamm’s biography of Ricketts (Tamm 2004). Third, and most substantively, the modern manifestations of ecology have finally come to resemble ideas of Ricketts that once seemed fanciful, idealistic, or far outside of the boundaries of academic science.

  • Astro, Richard. 1973. John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The shaping of a novelist. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    One of the first works to fully explore the influence that Ricketts had on John Steinbeck’s life and letters. Astro traces this influence and its changing nature across the body of Steinbeck’s work.

  • Astro, Richard. 1976. Edward F. Ricketts. Boise State University Western Writers 21. Boise, ID: Boise State University.

    A short biography of Ricketts, focused on his writing, both published and unpublished works. As part of the “Western Writers” series, Astro also noted similarities in Ricketts’s worldview to more-current western US writers such as Edward Abbey.

  • Davis, M. Kathryn. 2004. Edward F. Ricketts: Man of science and conscience. Steinbeck Studies 15.2: 15–22.

    DOI: 10.1353/stn.2004.0032

    An examination of Ricketts’s tendencies toward social activism, citing, for example, a letter Ricketts wrote to the Monterey County Herald wryly noting the irony of a country fighting Hitler that was detaining Japanese Americans. Davis traces Ricketts’s sense of social activism to University of Chicago ecologists who believed that studies of animal ecology were a window into human sociology.

  • Hedgpeth, Joel W., ed. 1978. The outer shores. 2 vols. Eureka, CA: Mad River.

    The two volumes of this out-of-print set, which are often repetitive with one another, are a hodgepodge of literary criticism, personal anecdotes, history, biography, photo essay, psychoanalytical speculation of Ricketts and Steinbeck, images of the editor’s fine maps, and reprinted Ricketts letters and essays. The volumes are important because Hedgpeth had a personal and working relationship with Ricketts, and they represent the first publication of many of Ricketts’s unpublished works.

  • Larsen, Stephen, and Robin Larsen. 1991. A fire in the mind: The life of Joseph Campbell. New York: Doubleday.

    The definitive biography of Campbell, with extensive sections on his relationship with Ricketts and the influence Ricketts had on his developing theories. Because much of Ricketts’s life is discussed through the lens of Steinbeck’s work and letters, this volume provides numerous stories and insights that are known only through Campbell’s perspective.

  • Rodger, Katharine A., ed. 2002. Renaissance man of Cannery Row: The life and letters of Edward F. Ricketts. Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press.

    Annotated publication of over one hundred of Ricketts’s letters, most previously available only in the Stanford University archives, to a wide range of scientists, writers, artists, friends, and lovers. Includes a biography of Ricketts, rare photographs, and short biographical sketches of Ricketts’s various correspondents.

  • Rodger, Katharine A., ed. 2006. Breaking through: Essays, journals, and travelogues of Edward F. Ricketts. Foreword by Susan F. Beegel. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Annotated publication of Ricketts’s most important essays, including previously unpublished versions of key philosophical essays. Each is introduced with its historical context and relation to the larger body of Ricketts’s work. Also includes a short biography of Ricketts and recollections by his daughter Nan and son, Ed Jr.

  • Tamm, Eric Enno. 2004. Beyond the outer shores: The untold odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the pioneering ecologist who inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell. New York and London: Four Walls Eight Windows.

    The most complete biography of Ricketts to date. In addition to discussing Ricketts’s family life and philosophies, Tamm shifts the typical focus from Ricketts’s relationship with John Steinbeck to his friendship and travel in the Pacific Northwest with Joseph Campbell. He also traces Ricketts’s concept of nonteleological thinking through Campbell’s protégé George Lucas and the Star Wars movies.

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