Steinbeck's scientific muse

A friendship with a biologist inspired and informed the novelist's work, says science communication professor

By | August 24, 2006

One of the most attractive scientific figures in literature is probably 'Doc,' the marine biologist in two of John Steinbeck's novels, Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954). The cannery workers come and go, but on the waterfront a variety of lowlifes live permanently: various bums, winos, prostitutes, and Doc, who lives and works at a biological supply company. Today, many Steinbeck readers may not realize that Doc was modeled closely on Steinbeck's friend Ed Ricketts, a biologist who assembled one of the only facilities to blend both science and art under one roof, influencing scientists and artists alike. Doc is a saintly character, much admired in the strange community of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Steinbeck gives plenty of detail of Doc's work: He is an unusual scientist, a freelancer making a (not too good) commercial living, and also a great enthusiast for music, art and poetry -- a Renaissance man among a community of hustlers. Doc was modelled closely on Steinbeck's friend, Ed Ricketts, owner of a real marine biology lab, Pacific Biological Laboratories Inc., of New Monterey, whose identity was well known when the book was published. (For years Ricketts had to put up with readers pestering him to find out more about the 'real' Doc.) Even though Ed's Pacific Biological Laboratory was steps away from the Hopkins Marine Laboratory, it was probably closest in spirit to the famous Stazione Zoologica at Naples, the very first marine laboratory. The Naples Station was the brainchild of Anton Dohrn, who used comparative embryology to support Darwin's theories. Marine invertebrates are particularly suitable for such work, and Dohrn spent the next 10 years by the sea, where laboratory facilities are not easy to find. In somewhat grandiose fashion, he and a friend dreamt up a scheme for an international chain of seaside laboratories where wandering biologists could find research facilities. The Stazione Zoologica opened in 1873, and was hugely successful. Many of the world's leading biologists spent time there, drawn by the facilities and opportunity to discuss ideas with other leading players. Once this reputation had been established, visits to Naples persisted even when good laboratories later became widespread. Ultimately, the Naples station provided the stimulus for other stations, and by the second quarter of the twentieth century, the international network of which Dohrn had dreamed became a reality. But Dohrn believed that music and art were as important as science. The station therefore contained a permanent collection of statues, frescoes, and works of art, and was the site of many concerts. As other marine stations were founded, especially in Europe and America, they focused on science to the exclusion of the arts and culture, abandoning the Naples cultural model. Across the ocean, Ed Ricketts' untidy (indeed, unwholesome) shack resonated with the grander vision of Anton Dohrn's Naples Station, uniting both art and science under one roof. Ricketts developed his own biological research, mapping the distribution of invertebrates along the Pacific coast from Mexico to Alaska, trying to explain the ecological mechanisms involved, and writing popular field guides based on these insights. But he was also an enthusiast for fine art, poetry, and classical music -- the labs were covered in reproductions of major art works pinned over the walls, and there was a huge collection of records with a big phonograph. The ramshackle laboratory was less successful than Anton Dohrn's urbane Naples station. No leading-edge biological research was done there, although the field guide Ed Ricketts published in 1939, Between Pacific Tides, was a popular and professional success and has remained a standard work for 65 years. More significant were the interactions between bright young men and women dropping in and out of Pacific Biologicals, especially around the annus mirabilis, 1932. The laboratory produced the sort of cross-disciplinary intellectual progress that Dohrn dreamed about for the Naples station, but never realized. John and Carol Steinbeck met and became friendly with Ed Ricketts in 1930. In 1932, the dilettante Joseph Campbell arrived in New Monterey and the intense interaction in and around the Pacific Biological Laboratory between Steinbeck, Campbell, and Ricketts had deep impacts on all their lives. With Campbell, Ricketts believed that humans needed to be closer to nature, and humans were placing unsustainable demands on nature. Steinbeck, in turn, internalized Ricketts' point that humans are creatures at the mercy of larger ecological forces, which literary critics now see as a fundamental element in his mature writing. Neither Dohrn nor Ricketts were leading scientists, but both facilitated intellectual work of enormous significance. However, Ricketts' contribution was largely neglected after his death, later reconstructed by Steinbeck and Campbell scholars, many of whom discern elements of the modern ecology and conservation movements in Ricketts' biology. Whether true or not, such reconstruction probably comes from the best of motives: A desire to give more credit for a remarkable but neglected life. Nicholas Russell is a professor and director of the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London. Nicholas Russell Links within this article J. Parini, John Steinbeck. A biography, 1994. J. Steinbeck, Cannery Row, 1945 J. Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday, 1954 E.E. Tamm, Beyond the outer shores. The untold odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the pioneering ecologist who inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, 2004 Annus Mirabilis Joseph Campbell N. Russell, 'The play's the thing...', The Scientist, July 21, 2006. Nicholas Russell


Avatar of: Richard A. Buck

Richard A. Buck

Posts: 1

August 25, 2006

I was surprised that no mention was made of Steinbeck's "The Log From the Sea of Cortez" in which he details the expedition he and Ed Ricketts, along with additional crew, took in 1940 to sample the tidal pools of the Gulf of California. Also included in the Penguin publication, ISBN 0-14-018744-8, is Steinbecks essay on the life of Ed Ricketts, written after Ricketts was killed in an accident with a freight train.
Avatar of: Donald Wolberg

Donald Wolberg

Posts: 18

August 28, 2006

Marvelously interesting narrative about Steinbeck and Ricketts, but I too was surprised about the missing Sea of Cortez adventure, still good reading.


Posts: 1

August 28, 2006

\nAs a college junior in the mid 1950's, I took a course in invertebrate\nbiology from Prof. Pollister at Brooklyn College. Aside from her being\none of the best teachers I ever encountered, among Dr. Pollister's\ncollection of preserved specimens were some with hand written labels\nsigned by John Steinbeck. So he was not only a friend of Ricketts but\nalso worked in the lab. This added a whole dimension to the study of\nbiology for me
Avatar of: Susan F. Beegel

Susan F. Beegel

Posts: 1

September 6, 2006

In addition to Steinbeck and Ricketts's co-written voyage of discovery, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (really, an astonishing thing not to have mentioned in such an article!), readers may want to consult Ricketts's papers, ably edited by Katharine A. Rodger and found in two books: Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts (U Alabama Press) and Breaking Through: The Essays, Journals, and Travelogues of Edward F. Ricketts (U California Press).

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