Searching for Ed Ricketts in Monterey

Monterey Bay Aquarium sits where the old Hovden Sardine Cannery used to operate, at the end of Ocean Avenue in Monterey, now called Cannery Row.  School children and adults crowd the Aquarium daily. Exhibits display native and exotic species of fish, mammals, invertebrates and plants.

One small exhibit, strategically placed in the front atrium, offers a glimpse of the old Cannery Row, when sardines were abundant and the Cannery was the main industry. The exhibit includes a small biological laboratory from Cannery Row once owned and operated by Ed Ricketts. We see Ricketts’ desk, specimen jars, books, boots and information about his life.

Ricketts dropped out of University of Chicago in 1922 but had an inquiring mind and a love of marine biology. Like John Muir, his idol, he walked miles through the south looking at and thinking about nature. Like Muir, his ideas were not initially accepted because he lacked the appropriate academic degrees. In 1923 Ed moved from Chicago to Monterey, California and opened the Pacific Biological Laboratories with a friend, A.E. Galigher. They started a small business collecting and preparing marine specimens for schools and businesses.

In Monterey Ricketts joined a community of writers, artists, fishermen, cannery workers, and businessmen. John Steinbeck was a part of that community, and he and Ricketts became close friends.

Ed’s business took him from Alaska to British Columbia to Mexico, and he kept detailed notebooks about the sea life of the Pacific Coast. In 1939 Stanford University published Ricketts’ book, Between Pacific Tides, about the sea and shore habitats of the West, from rocky coast to mud flats to sandy shore to eel grass. His book suggests an interconnectedness among species and habitat that is basic to modern ecological theory.

Steinbeck used Ricketts as the central character of “Doc” in Cannery Row, depicting him with wisdom, patience and generosity. Doc is a leader of the Cannery community but also its victim, his generosity making him vulnerable to exploitation. His willingness to be exploited endears the character to the reader.

The real Ricketts traveled with Steinbeck to Mexico and co-wrote The Sea of Cortez. Ricketts also served as mentor to a young Joseph Campbell (later known for his work in mythology), collecting and cataloging specimens in Alaska.

Ricketts’ work reflects his philosophy of life: exploring and understanding the whole by examining its parts. He advocated seeing all of nature as cohesive and interdependent long before environmentalists campaigned to preserve open space and wetlands.

Ed was killed in Monterey in 1948 when his Buick stalled on the train tracks near his lab and was hit by an oncoming train.  Today there is a statue of Ricketts and a small park at that location. Passersby are known to place flowers in Ricketts hand.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium hosts the Ed Ricketts Memorial Award and Lecture annually, honoring a scientist who has contributed “exemplary work throughout their career and advanced the status of knowledge in the field of marine science”.