Ritter, William Emerson

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(b. Hampden, Wisconsin, 19 November 1856; d. Berkeley, California, 10 January 1944)


The longest-lasting achievement of Ritter, who was recognized in his day as a philosophical biologist, was establishing a permanent marine research institution in La Jolla, California, that became the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Ritter was raised on the Wisconsin farm of his parents, Horatio and Leonora Eason Ritter, who had moved there from Connecticut. In 1884 he graduated from the State Normal School at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he found Joseph LeConte’s textbook Elements in Geology of great interest, and determined to continue his education at the University of California under LeConte. He taught in public schools in Wisconsin to earn his college costs, and he supported himself similarly in California from 1885 while completing his B.S. (1888). After a year of graduate studies at the University of California, he was awarded a fellowship at Harvard University, where he studied for two years under Edward Laurens Mark; he earned his M.S. in 1891 and his Ph.D. in 1893 at Harvard.

Before receiving his doctorate, Ritter was appointed an instructor and simultaneously the first chairman of the newly formed department of zoology at the University of California at Berkeley in 1891. In that same year he married Mary E. Bennett, who had earned her M. D. in 1886; they had no children. At Berkeley, Ritter inaugurated several new courses, including the first laboratory courses offered there. He advanced to professor in 1902. He also determined upon a long-range goal: to survey the marine organisms of California. Ritter wrote in 1912: “Imperfectly as had any of the fields of zoology of western America been cultivated, the least studied of all had been the teeming life of the great ocean on whose margin the University [of California] is located.” He believed that this “practically virgin” field of research “would yield richly in both new problems and new light on old problems.”

From 1892 to 1903 Ritter conducted research and teaching sessions during the summers at several coastal locations in California before finding a permanent site in San Diego. There, in the community of La Jolla, he established a biological station, first in the summers and then as a year-round facility, that came under the auspices of the University of California in 1912 as the Scripps Institution for Biological Research. He cultivated local supporters, of whom the most significant were newspaper magnate Edward Willis Scripps and his half sister, Ellen Browning Scripps, who made possible the entire facility and its first endowment. The establishment of the news agency Science Service in 1921 by Edward Scripps resulted from several years of discussions with Ritter, who served as its first president until 1928.

Ritter’s early research studies were morphological: on the parietal eye of lizards and on the eye and related structures of the blind goby (Typholgobius californiensis). He then became interested in the taxonomy and structure of the tunicates and the hemichordate worms Enteropnettsta. In 1899, in his capacity as president of the California Academy of Scie two-month Harriman Alaskan Expedition and made extensive collections of marine invertebrates. His later scientific publications were in biological philosophy, on what he called an organismal conception of life, defined thus: “The organism of its elements as its elements are to an explanation of the organism,”

As director of the Scripps Institution, Ritter oversaw construction of several buildings and acquired a ship, the Alexander Agassiz, for near-shore researches by appealing to generous benefactors. He established a staff of biologists interested especially in marine invertebrates, and he invited distinguished scientists to spend time at the facility. A dedicated researcher, he set high standards for his institution’s programs and emphasized the need for studying animals in their natural environment. Ritter took keen interest in the scientific research and in the personal welfare of the staff. From the beginning he was intent upon establishing physical, chemical, and hydrographic research as well as the customary biological studies of marine stations. He appointed physicist George F. McEwen, who instituted a program in physical oceanography and began correlations of ocean temperatures with weather. Ritter encouraged the work in marine chemistry begun by Eric G. Moberg while he was a graduate student. He also invited biologist Francis B. Sumner to join the staff to conduct studies on the inheritance of acquired characters using deer mice (Peromyscus), in spite of the nonmarine nature of the work, on the basis that the relation of organisms to their environment was an overall question in biology. Upon his retirement in 1923, however, Ritter urged that the institution confine itself to marine studies, and selected T. Wayland Vaughan as his successor. Ritter retired to Berkeley, where he continued writing scientific and philosophical works until his death.


I. Original Works. A significant paper of Ritter’s on Enteropneusta is “Studies on the Ecology, Morphology, and Speciology of the Young of Some Enteropneusta of Western North America,” in University of California Publications in Zoology, 1 no.5 (1904), 171–210, with B. M. Davis, On tunicates he wrote “The Pelagic Tunicata of the San Diego Region, Excepting the Larvacea,” in University of California Publications in Zoology, 2 , no.3 (1905), 51–112. Some of Ritter’s philosophical publications are The Unity of the Organism, or the Organismal Conception of Life, 2 vols. (Boston, 1919); The Natural History of Our Conduct (New York, 1927), with Edna Watson Bailey; and The California Woodpecker and I (Berkeley, 1938). A longtime project of Ritter’s was published after his death as Charles Darwin and the Golden Rule, Edna Watson Bailey, comp. and ed. (Washington, D.C., 1954).

Articles by Ritter on the early years of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography are in the institution’s archives; his most important one is “The Marine Biological Station of San Diego; Its History, Present Conditions, Achievements, and Aims,” in University of California Publications in Zoology, 9 , no.4 (1912), 137–248.

Considerable archival material on Ritter is at the University of California, Berkeley.

II. Secondary Literature. Brief biographical accounts of Ritter are Francis B. Sumner, “William Emerson Ritter; Naturalist and Philosopher,” in Science, 99 (1944), 335–338; and Frank E. A. Thone and Edna Watson Bailey, “William Emerson Ritter: Builder,” in Scientific Monthly, 24 (1927), 256–262. Manuscript items in the Scripps Institution archives have additional material, including an eight-page typescript, “William Emerson Ritter,” by Tracy I. Storer. None of these has a complete bibliography of Ritter’s papers. The autobiography of Mary Bennett Ritter, More Than Gold in California (Berkeley, 1933), provides scanty biographical information on her husband. The most valuable summary of Ritter’s years as director is Helen Raitt and Beatrice Moulton, Scripps Institution of Oceanography: First Fifty Years (Los Angeles, 1967).

Elizabeth N. Shor