Ritter, William Emerson, 1856-1944

Alternative names
Birth 1856
Death 1944

Biographical notes:

Professor of Zoology, University of California, Berkeley; member of the Harriman Alaska Expedition; director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at La Jolla.

From the description of William E. Ritter papers, 1879-1944. (University of California, Berkeley). WorldCat record id: 122403282

American zoologist; founder and first director of the Marine Biological Association of San Diego which became the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD.

From the description of Papers, 1893-1944 bulk 1903-1923. (University of California, San Diego). WorldCat record id: 26268542

Biographical Sketch

William Emerson Ritter, professor of zoology at the University of California, was born on a Wisconsin farm on November 19, 1856, where he lived and worked for the first twenty years of his life. After graduating from the Oshkosh Normal School, he continued his studies at Harvard in 1890, married Mary Bennett in 1891, and came to the University of California at Berkeley in 1893 as a biology instructor. In 1899 he was elected president of the California Academy of Sciences, and that same year took part in the famed Harriman Expedition to Alaska.

By 1904 Ritter had begun working in San Diego on what he hoped would be an exhaustive study of marine life focused on a limited area, using the vessel Albatross for deep water investigation. He was hence for many years to divide his time between Berkeley and La Jolla where he spent his summers. It was on his return from a trip to Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines in 1906 that Ritter actively sought to interest Andrew Carnegie, Edward Harriman and others in the financing of a biological station at La Jolla. Only in 1912, after much negotiation, were final arrangements between benefactor Edward Wyllis Scripps and the University of California completed, and Ritter named first scientific director of the new Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a position he held until 1922. The Institution soon attracted many young men to work under Ritter's supervision, namely Harry B. Torrey, Loye Holmes Miller, Samuel Jackson Holmes, Joseph Grinnell, Charles Atwood Kofoid, and others who would later attain prominence in the world of science.

Ritter, vitally concerned at the lack of wide-spread dissemination of accurate but intelligible reports on scientific developments and discoveries, as early as 1915 discussed the possibility of training professional scientists to write on scientific subjects in a popular vein. This idea, by 1920, germinated into a full-fledged proposal for a news service known as Science Service, which was financially backed by E. W. Scripps, and officially commenced in February 1921.

A man of varied interests, and a strong believer in the humanity of science, Ritter was fascinated by the relationship of science to religion, and of biology to social questions, and his numerous published works reflecting his philosophy include War, Science and Civilization; The Higher Usefulness of Science and Other Essays; The Probable Infinity of Nature and Life; The Scientific Method of Reaching Truth; The Natural History of Our Conduct (with Edna W. Bailey); and The Organismal Conception (with Edna W. Bailey). As a result of his study of the activities of animals under natural conditions, he evolved his concept of "organism as a whole" which was published as The Unity of the Organism, or the Organismal Theory of Consciousness in 1918. A second part to this work was planned, and though written in large part and revised, it was never completed. A detailed study of woodpeckers and their acorn-storing proclivities culminated in the publication of his California Woodpeckers and I by the University of California Press. Ritter had also partially written a work tentatively entitled The Ocean and its Life, which he never finished. Over a period of years he collaborated with Edna Watson Bailey on his Charles Darwin and the Golden Rule, a distillation of his many writings on the subject, completed by Mrs. Bailey only after Ritter's death. Ritter also contributed many articles on a variety of subjects to learned journals.

A member of the California Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and many other scientific organizations, Ritter took part in the 1923 Pan-Pacific Scientific Congress held in Australia, and went to England for the International Congress of Science and Technology in 1931.

Emeritus in 1924, Ritter was to continue his scientific work and writing for many years. Although childless, he was much interested in children and in their education, and at this time supported the Berkeley Children's Community School where he taught natural science. He also was a strong advocate for the teaching of evolution in the California public schools.

In failing health since 1941, Ritter died in Berkeley on January 10, 1944.

From the guide to the William E. Ritter Papers, 1879-1944, (The Bancroft Library)


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  • Zoology
  • Women teachers
  • Biology--History--Archives
  • Biology
  • Marine biology
  • Oceanography--History--Archives


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  • Alaska (as recorded)