Esau, Katherine, 1898-1997

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Professor of Botany, University of California, Davis (1933-1963); author of "Plan anatomy" (1953), "Viruses in plant hosts" (1968), and "The phloem" (1969), among others.

From the description of Katherine Esau papers, 1932-1971. (University of California, Davis). WorldCat record id: 277246824

Biography / Administrative History

Katherine Esau (1898-1997), a world-renowned pioneer in plant anatomy was a prodigious researcher and author. Born of a Mennonite family in Ekaterinoslav, Russia (now Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine), she and her family fled Russia after the Revolution and moved to Berlin. She completed her undergraduate education in Germany in agriculture and worked there in several jobs. In 1922 the family immigrated to the United States and settled in Reedley, California.

Esau's early interests in plant anatomy centered on how viruses act on plants and their effect on plant tissue and development. During her employment at the Spreckels Sugar Company in Salinas, California in 1924, she worked on the development of resistance to curly top virus in sugar beets. She was invited to continue her research on sugar beets through the graduate program at UC Berkeley and the field station at Davis, earning her PhD in 1932. After graduate school, she was hired at the agricultural college at Davis (now University of California) and became one of the first women on the faculty, staying there until 1963. While teaching, she continued her research on viruses and specifically phloem, the food conducting tissue in plants. Esau was a popular teacher and was known for her ability to speak and write clearly, synthesizing the 19th century anatomy literature in plant structure and development and integrating it with current research. In the 1950s, she collaborated with botanist Vernon Cheadle, who chaired the Botany Department, on further phloem research. When he came to UCSB to become Chancellor, she moved to Santa Barbara, establishing an electron microscope lab at UCSB, and teaching plant anatomy as Emeritus Professor before retiring in 1967. She continued her research well into her 90s, publishing 162 articles and five books.

Over her 64-year career, Esau received many awards and degrees including the President's National Medal of Science in 1989. Her many classic textbooks are still used today in botany classes around the world. Esau was very generous both in her teaching and in giving back to academia. She established three endowments in plant anatomy and, with her family, contributed generously to several Mennonite educational institutions. A number of excellent biographies of Esau as well as her own autobiography and oral history provide insight into this fascinating woman.

From the guide to the Katherine Esau papers, 1924-1997, (Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration (University of California, Santa Barbara). C. H. Muller Library)


Katherine Esau (1898-1997), professor of biology at the University of California Santa Barbara, is best known as the author of the textbooks Plant Anatomy (1953) and Anatomy of Seed Plants (1960) and for her research on plant diseases and viruses, particularly on agricultural crops. In addition to her textbooks, Esau published over 100 articles. She was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1940, was the sixth woman chosen as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1957), and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush.

Esau was born in 1898 to a German Mennonite family in Ekaterinoslav, Russia (now Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine) where her father served as mayor in the years before the Russian Revolution. She studied agricultural science in Moscow, Russia, and, after the Revolution in Berlin, Germany, where her family fled to avoid persecution by the Bolsheviks. Shortly after Katherine's graduation in 1922, the Esau family immigrated to the United States and Katherine continued to study plant anatomy at the University of California, Davis. Since UC Davis did not yet award doctorates at that time, she was granted her doctorate for her UC Davis-based research through UC Berkeley in 1931, at which point she joined the faculty of the Biology Department at UC Davis.

In 1963, Dr. Esau moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she continued her research with former UC Davis botanist, and later UCSB Chancellor, Dr. Vernon I. Cheadle. Dr. Esau's research centered on the structure of plant tissues and the means by which viruses and other pathogens spread through the phloem. She was one of the first plant biologists to use an electron microscope and in 1969 was given an electron microscope solely for her use. She retired from teaching in 1965, but continued her research and writing until 1994.

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From the guide to the Katherine Esau Papers, 1870-1990, 1935-1987, (University of California, Santa Barbara. Library. Dept. of Special Collections)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Katherine Esau papers, 1924-1997 Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration (University of California, Santa Barbara). C. H. Muller Library
creatorOf Katherine Esau Papers, 1870-1990, 1935-1987 University of California, Santa Barbara. Davidson Library. Department of Special Collections.
referencedIn William B. Provine collection of evolutionary biology reprints, 20th century. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
referencedIn Vernon and Mary Cheadle papers, 1936-1994 Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration (University of California, Santa Barbara). C. H. Muller Library
creatorOf Esau, Katherine, 1898-1997. Katherine Esau papers, 1932-1971. University of California, Davis, Shields Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Cheadle, Mary Low person
associatedWith Cheadle, Vernon Irvin, 1910- person
correspondedWith Provine, William B. person
associatedWith University of California, Davis corporateBody
associatedWith University of California, Davis. Library. Dept. of Special Collections. corporateBody
associatedWith University of California, Santa Barbara corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Growth (Plants)
Plant anatomy
Virus diseases of plants


Birth 1898-04-03

Death 1997-06-04




Ark ID: w66h5g67

SNAC ID: 71786263