Address given by President-Elect Ray F. Evert, University of Wisconsin

Reproduced with permission from the Plant Science Bulletin, Volume 31 No 5, October 1985.

With the presentation of the first Katherine Esau Award, established by her for student papers and named by others for her this evening, I thought it would be fitting to devote my address to Dr. Esau, herself a life-long student. Many of us are familiar with her research and books, but few of us know her personally or the difficult and unusual path she followed to her distinguished career as a botanist. Indeed, she is today the grande dame of American Botany.
Dr. Esau
The picture above is one example among many shown during the talk. Dr. Esau humorously gave it its title.


Katherine Esau was born on April 3, 1898, in the City of Yekaterinoslav, now called Dnepropetrovsk, in the Ukraine. The city was named originally after Katherine the Great who promoted agriculture in the steppes of the Ukraine by inviting settlers from Germany, among them the Mennonites. Dr. Esau's family is Mennonite.

Dr. Esau's great-grandfather Aron Esau immigrated to the Ukraine In 1804 from Prussia. Her grandfather Jacob Esau dealt in grain commerce and lived in the so-called colony of Gnadenfeld, where her father John was born. Her father and his older brother, Jacob, left the colony to study In Russian schools -- the first Mennonites from their colony to do so. Her uncle became an eye doctor and her father a Mechanical Engineer.

Eventually, her father became the mayor of Yekaterinoslav, where he built the city's waterworks, a streetcar line, and large city buildings, including several schools. A striking innovation of his was to borrow money from France for the building projects. Dr. Esau's mother was born in Vekaterinoslav. Her family also immigrated from Prussia.


Dr. Esau learned to read and write at home, before attending school. As a child, she initially attended a Mennonite primary school of 4 years. A Russian teacher taught the Russian language, and the minister from the Church taught German and Bible stories.

When she was 11 years old, Dr. Esau entered the Gymnasium which she finished in 1916. That fall she entered the Golitsin Women's Agricultural College in Moscow, starting with studies in the natural sciences, physics, chemistry, and geology.

Dr. Esau says that she chose Agriculture over Botany because she thought Agriculture dealt with plants in a more interesting way than Botany. Her impression of Botany was that it was concerned largely with the naming of plants, an impression gained from one of her relatives attending the University of Saint Petersburg.

The Revolution interrupted her schooling after the first year, at the end of two semesters. As travel became impossible, she remained in Yekaterinoslav waiting for further developments. In the meantime, she studied English, took piano lessons, attending a gardening school, and collected plants that she was supposed to present at school in the second year.

Leaving Russia

Of course the First World War was underway in 1917. It came very close to home when the German army advanced and succeeded in occupying the Ukraine. Most of the peaceful population welcomed this turn of events because it saved them from occupation by the Bolsheviks or from invasion by unorganized bands that were massacring people and destroying property in the countryside. Prior to the German occupation her father had been removed from his post by the "revolutionary" government and was under constant scrutiny.

When the war ended, the German officers warned that the population would be in great danger after the army left and advised them to flee with them to Germany. The Esaus, along with many other people followed this advice. They rode in a third class wagon with wooden benches, together with the officers, the injured and some other refugees. The journey to Berlin lasted two weeks rather than the usual two days because of various difficulties and obstacles put in their way by the revolutionary governments in the cities through which they passed. The day after the Esaus left Yekaterinoslav, posters appeared in the town proclaiming that the new city "Managers" were looking for her father, whom they characterized as a member of the "counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie" and an "enemy of the country."


In Berlin, Dr. Esau registered in the Berlin Landwirtschaftliche Hochschule (Agricultural College of Berlin). Fortunately, she had the foresight to gather her school documents in Russia and carry them with her to Germany. The spring semester was about to begin, so she had to "change gears" from the Russian to German language.

During the second year, Dr. Esau went south and spent two semesters in Hohenheim, near Stuttgart, where she enrolled in various agricultural courses. After 2 more semesters in Berlin and a final examination, she received the title "Landwirtschaftlehrerin." With some additional studies she passed a "Zusatzprufung" in plant breeding given by the then famous geneticist Erwin Baur.

From Berlin, Dr. Esau went to a large estate in Northern Germany that housed a model seed breeding station for wheat. There she joined the workers in the fields and barns doing various kinds of chores and, before long, found herself in a dilemma with the owner. An unmarried man, taking care of the farm for his aged parents, thought Dr. Esau was just the right person for him. She says she practiced more diplomacy than farming at that place.

When she met with some other professors for the last time, two of them seemed concerned about her future. One of them offered her an assistantship in teaching. The geneticist Baur thought she should return to Russia where she would be able to contribute a great deal to Russian agriculture. Little did he understand the Russian Revolution and what was in store for that country. Just think of Lysenko! By then the Esaus already had decided to settle in the United States and preparations were underway to do so.


The Esaus left for America in mid-October 1922. Her brother Paul stayed behind to finish his last year of studies at the University in oil chemistry. The Esaus crossed the ocean by boat and the continent by train; and, like so many other immigrants, they entered the United States at Ellis Island.

Their initial destination in the U.S. was Reedley, CA, where they arrived on November 16, 1922. Her father chose Reedley because it was almost a Mennonite town. The nearest, larger town was Fresno. Her father talked about buying a farm to apply Dr. Esau's agricultural training, but she persuaded him that it would be wiser for her to find a job in a seed company. Not to be idle, she followed up a newspaper ad and was engaged to do housework in Fresno. She even did the cooking, while the mother of the household took care of the children. She must have been a pretty good cook - the family cried when she left.

In Fresno, Dr. Esau became acquainted with a family named Siemens. Among the members of the family was Esther, who later married Dr. Esau's brother Paul. Mr. Siemens, a land broker, found the possibility of employment for Dr. Esau at Oxnard, CA. A Mr. Sloan from Idaho was starting a seed production ranch, with sugarbeet seed of prime interest. With her training in plant breeding, Dr. Esau was just the kind of person Mr. Sloan was looking for and she was hired.

Oxnard, CA

The beginning was rough. Dr. Esau had a great many responsibilities. Among them, she had to hire a farmer with teams of horses and equipment to prepare the soil for planting. She had to hire Mexicans to plant selected seed by hand; this required Spanish lessons so that she could communicate with the Mexicans. She even had to poison ground squirrels that were using the peace of Sunday mornings to eat the beets.

The Oxnard episode lasted only one year. Mr. Sloan declared bankruptcy and gave up the ranch.

Spreckels, CA 1924-27

Shortly after the Oxnard episode, Dr. Esau was hired by the Spreckels Sugar Company at Spreckels near Salinas, CA. Her main task was to develop a sugarbeet resistant to the curly-top disease. The name curly-top referred to the curling of leaves on diseased plants, which were also severely stunted. The disease was then already recognized as a virus transmitted by the beet leafhopper. The USDA worked on the disease at Riverside, CA, and had evidence that the susceptibility of the plant to curly-top infection varied and that developing a resistant strain seemed a definite possibility. In 1919, Spreckels were actively engaged in breeding work with sugarbeets and succeeded in obtaining a resistant strain, which they named P19, meaning Parent selected in 1919. The strain had a poorly-shaped root and a low sugar content, however. Dr. Esau's task was to improve the P19 strain by hybridization and to make new selections in severely infected fields. The work would be entirely her responsibility.

Dr. Esau's parents joined her at Spreckels. Her parents attended an evening school in Salinas to continue studying English. In the evening at home, her mother read aloud stories by American writers so as to improve her pronunciation, while Dr. Esau did some embroidery, which, incidentally, she still has.

Despite crude working conditions at Spreckels, genuine progress was being made on the curly-top project. During this time, Dr. Esau began thinking about going back to school. The logical plan seemed for her to do graduate work at Davis and there to continue research with the sugarbeet. An unexpected visitation to Spreckels furthered her plans. The chairman of the Botany Division at Davis, Dr. W. W. Robbins and the chairman of the Truck Crops Division, Dr. H. A. Jones came to see what was being done with the sugarbeet and the curly-top problem. Dr. Esau showed them the various plots in the Salinas Valley and, toward the end of the visit, inquired about the chances of doing graduate work at Davis. Dr. Robbins immediately offered to appoint her as an assistant in his division and had no objection to having her work on a project based on the sugarbeet. After all, he raised sugarbeets with his brother-in-law in the delta region of the Sacramento River. Spreckels had no objection to her plans, either. In fact, they were pleased that she would continue research on sugarbeets at the University. So, when she left Spreckels in the fall of 1927, a truckload of beets and beet seed followed her car.

Davis, CA

When Dr. Esau arrived in Davis, she was first of all concerned about planting the beets that were delivered by the Spreckel truck. Some plants ended up being planted on campus, others in people's back yards.

In the spring of 1928, Dr. Esau registered as a graduate student. She was nearly 30 years old. Since Davis had no graduate school, registration had to be done through Berkeley. Her scholastic standing was evaluated by the Graduate Dean, Charles B. Lipman, as being equivalent to an MS degree in the University of California. Dr. Lipman was also a native of Russia so he could read her Russian and German documents without difficulty. Dr. Esau was to be a graduate student in the Botany Division and her field of study was to be Botany.

Professor T.H. Goodspeed, the Nicotiana cytologist in the Botany Department at Berkeley, was to be her adviser. Dr. Goodspeed prepared a list of courses to strengthen her botanical background and asked her to bring some translations from German and French botanical articles so he could file them as evidence of her having passed the language examinations. Of course, this she did without difficulty. She also took courses in organic and physical chemistry, which were not on Dr. Goodspeed's list. A summer and one semester were spent taking courses in Berkeley.

Change in Research Direction

For the originally planned program of developing a curly-top resistant sugarbeet, Dr. Esau was allowed to use the grounds belonging to the Truck Crops Division. She soon discovered, however, that little chance existed in Davis of getting her plants naturally infected with the curly-top disease because the Davis area was not favorable for propagation of the beet leafhopper. She would have to raise her own infective leafhoppers, which she learned to do from a Berkeley entomologist, Dr. H.H.P. Severin.

Then, a new obstacle appeared. The Truck Crops Division embarked upon a project of standardizing varieties of table beets. From then on, she was not allowed to liberate infective leafhoppers over the Truck Crops grounds.

After some "hard" thinking, she went to Dr. Robbins and explained to him that the Davis campus was not suitable for her original project and proposed to replace it with a study on the effect of the curly-top virus upon the plant. Her research area would now be plant anatomy or, more specifically, pathological anatomy. She had experimental plants, ample space in a greenhouse, colonies of leafhoppers, and the experience on how to handle the insects and how to produce, infected plants, techniques she used many times in subsequent studies.

Completion of Work for the Degree

Dr. Esau took her qualifying examination in September 1930. It was held at Berkeley. In addition to Drs. Robbins and Jones, the committee included a plant pathologist, 2 plant physiologists, and a geneticist. One of the committee members was dissatisfied with the answers to his questions but the committee as a whole passed her. She was advanced to the candidacy for the Ph.D. but not before she felt that she had been turned inside out. Incidentally, the problem with the dissatisfied committee member was that he wanted her to speculate but did not like her speculations.

The committee appointed to supervise Dr. Esau's research did not include an anatomist. There were no anatomists at either Davis or Berkeley. Her final examination was held at Berkeley and the Ph.D. was awarded in December 1931. The formal granting of the degree occurred at the Berkeley Commencement of 1932. In that same year Dr. Esau was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Not realizing the significance of this election, she asked Dr. Robbins if she should join the society. He looked at her in disbelief.


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. She was especially pleased with the latter appointment because it would afford her time for research. She wasn't sure whether she would enjoy teaching.

Dr. Esau was assigned to teach Plant Anatomy, Systematic Botany, Morphology of Crop Plants, and Microtechnique. Despite her initial reluctance to teach, she came to enjoy it and her students responded accordingly. Having taken Dr. Esau's plant anatomy course, I can testify that she was an excellent teacher. Moreover, with her keen sense of humor, the class was conducted in a relaxed atmosphere.

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. Robbins did not believe in accelerated promotions. As an Associate Professor, in 1946, she was elected to give the Faculty Research Lecture, a high honor at Davis. Some years later, the new Director of the Campus observed that she was underpaid and raised her salary.

As the campus developed, academic and physical changes occurred in the Botany Division. When Dr. Esau arrived in Davis, the Division was housed in the Horticulture Building. The chairman and secretary had an office and the teaching staff was moved from one classroom to another which served as their offices. The third move made her share a room (a teaching laboratory) with a newly appointed plant physiologist, Dr. Alden S. Crafts. It was a profitable arrangement, because both Dr. Crafts and she were becoming increasingly interested in the phloem tissue - he as a possible pathway for the transport of chemicals used for weed control and she because of the close relation between the phloem tissue and the spread of the disease-induced tissue degeneration. It was this latter relation that provided the primary stimulus for her becoming so greatly involved in research on the phloem tissue. Her phloem research continued, however, to be combined with efforts to find and to explore the so-called phloem-limited viruses. In the early 1960s, Dr. Esau turned to electron microscopy, which greatly enhanced the understanding of virus-plant host relations. As to the phloem itself, electron microscopy began to reveal the role of the unique features of the sieve element in the function of that cell as a conduit of food. Together, these two aspects of phloem research came to dominate her interest in plant science.

Almost all of Dr. Esau's studies involved crop plants. Among those studies, her work on the ontogeny of collenchyma in celery caught the attention of Earle Ennis, who wrote a column called "Smoke Rings" for the San Francisco Chronicle. Apparently, he was amused with the terminology used to describe the celery petiole. Dated Monday, March 1, 1937, the article read as follows:

KATHERINE ESAU, in Hilgardia, a journal of agricultural science, at last has been able to inform a tense world why celery makes a noise when bitten.

Writing under the title, "Ontogeny and Structure of Collenchyma and of Vascular Tissues in Celery Petioles," she explains that "celery petioles have crescent shapes in transverse sections, with prominent ribs on the abaxial side." She asserts further that "A large collenchyma strand, is present in each rib under the epidermis.

Continuing, she says: "Two collenchyma strands occur on the adaxial side, but here two to three subepidermal layers of cells are collenchymatously thickened."

Light began to dawn for us at this point. But Katherine went a bit further and clarified the whole situation. Said she:

"The large vascular bundles are collateral, and the xylem occurs on the adaxial, the phloem on the abaxial side of the bundles."

Well, of course. Naturally. Clear as crystal. We had forgotten all about "xylem." The minute we read that we understood, just as you undoubtedly do, why a celery goes "crunch" when bitten.

In fact, after reading this we bit a stalk of celery and collenchymatously speaking, it acted exactly that way. And we are relieved! It certainly is nice to clear these things up.

When the Botany Division outgrew its quarters in the Horticulture Building, it was moved to another temporary housing in a building intended to serve as a garage - the building that housed the Botany Department in part, during her four years as a graduate student at Davis. The furniture was mostly built in, and only the chairman had a regular desk. A small part of one room was walled off as a darkroom for photographic work. Since there was no air-conditioning, the darkroom was unbearably hot much of the time. As Dr. Esau's demands for photomicrography began to increase, she solved the problem by buying her own photomicrography and darkroom equipment and setting up at home at 237 First Street, just off the campus, where she lived with her mother and father. During the 40s and 50s all of her published photomicrographs, including those for the first edition of Plant Anatomy, were "home products." When Dr. Esau built a second house in Davis, it was made square so that a new darkroom could be located exactly in the center, free of any windows.

In 1960, the Botany Department moved into a proper building named Robbins Hall. At last, her two last years at Davis, she had a real desk. She was still in the "garage" when she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1957. Dr. Esau moved to Santa Barbara in 1963 to continue her collaborative research on the phloem with Dr. Vernon I. Cheadle, who became Chancellor of the Santa Barbara campus. Dr. Esau considers her 22 years at Santa Barbara to be her most productive and satisfying. Because the Davis campus did not tend to attract students in botany as did Berkeley, Dr. Esau did not have a great many graduate students - 15 all told. Those who had the good fortune to have Dr. Esau as their mentor, know her as one who gave unselfishly of her time and shared freely her knowledge and insights. And, although she did not let the individual student know directly, she was always concerned for his or her welfare. Her concern for the welfare of others was also brought home to me in 1966, during my first trip to Germany. While there, my wife and I visited in Munich with the forest physiologist Bruno Huber, who told us that at the end of the Second World War, Dr. Esau sought him out and sent packages of food and clothing to his family until they were able to get back on their feet. Dr. Esau has never mentioned this.

During a working visit to Santa Barbara last summer (1984), Dr. Esau and I discussed the merits of her buying either a new typewriter or a personal computer. When it was decided that a computer, with printer, would be optimal in preparation of the new text for Plant Anatomy, that was it. At age 86, this life-long student purchased a computer and began taking lessons in its operation.

Postscript. 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 and Anatomy of Seed Plants, which are among the most influential textbooks in structural botany the second half of this century.

In 1957, Dr. Esau became the sixth woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1989, she was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George Bush.