Friday, September 7, 2012

From the Archives: William Emerson Ritter: A Man with a plan, a backer, a boat, and eventually, an Oceanographic Institution!

William E. Ritter
Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library

I've been in Berkeley, California the last few days, pouring through the many boxes and cartons of the William Emerson Ritter collection at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.  This collection is huge, but I'm not necessarily concerned with the bulk of the papers.  Those detail Ritter's participation in the formation of Science Service.

Instead, I'm interested in Ritter's work at the University of California marine laboratory connected with the Marine Biological Association of San Diego. In 1902, Ritter (then a junior professor at the U of C) initiated a survey of California waters off San Pedro. The next year he moved that survey point to San Diego.  There, he found a group of local citizens who were equally interested in the marine environment, and the MBA of San Diego was formed and a marine laboratory was built.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 1911

The laboratory received the majority of its funding from E.W. Scripps and his sister Ellen Scripps.  Starting with a one-room wooden structure without running water, as director, William Ritter built the laboratory into a fantastic source of new scientific research in the marine environment. By 1910, the smaller laboratory had been moved to La Jolla and expanded to accommodate the large amount of investigators interested in coming to California to work at the Institution.  In 1912, the University of California joined with the MBA to maintain the laboratory, and the name was changed to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Ritter was a prolific journal keeper.  His archives are filled with slips of paper and napkins with notes about embryology and morphology, as well as every notebook from his graduate training in biology at Harvard.  Of particular interest to me are the journals he kept during the first 10 years of the MBA. They detail issues with water purity, securing research vessels, funding decisions, and other day to day activities.  Ritter wrote down nearly everything he did for these years, providing this lucky researcher with a full, if dry, account of the life of a marine researcher.

Beyond his amazing record-keeping, Ritter also provides me with insight into the reasons that biologists founded so many marine laboratories at the turn of the century.  Ritter outlines, both in published work and in his personal notes, the importance of balancing laboratory and field work in marine science.  He doesn't feature in Robert Kohler's Landscapes and Labscapes, but his papers suggest that the debate about the place of the lab and field in marine science was being debated. Ritter, and his work at the MBA, give me a glimpse into that debate, and the importance of place in American science at the turn of the century.

Also, there was a picture of a lobster.  It is awesome.

No comments:

Post a Comment