Dr. Katherine Esau studied botany in three languages and two continents — through revolution and emigration — to reach the height of her field. When she arrived at UC Santa Barbara in 1963, she had already led a groundbreaking career in the structure of plants. Although she officially became a professor emerita in 1965, she continued researching into her early nineties. Through the scholars she trained and a generous bequest to support the plant sciences on campus, Dr. Esau left a legacy of scientific inquiry to UC Santa Barbara.
Born in 1898 to a German Mennonite family in Russia, Katherine Esau and her hometown of Yekaterinoslav both were named for the agricultural impact of Catherine the Great. Her father was the mayor and loyal to the czar. After the Bolshevik Revolution, which interrupted young Katherine’s studies in Moscow, the family feared persecution. The Esaus fled to Germany on a cattle train just one day before posters seeking her father appeared. After Katherine’s graduation from the Berlin Agricultural College in 1922, the Esaus immigrated to the United States.
Dr. Esau received her doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1931 and joined the faculty at UC Davis where she studied phloem tissue and plant viruses. When Dr. Vernon Cheadle joined the faculty at UC Davis, they formed a strong research partnership. Dr. Esau’s 1953 book “Plant Anatomy” is a classic in the field. In 1957, she became the sixth woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1989, she became the first botanist to be honored with the National Medal of Science.
When Dr. Vernon Cheadle became chancellor of UC Santa Barbara in 1963, Dr. Esau also moved to UCSB so they could continue their collaboration. At UC Santa Barbara, Dr. Esau would continue researching and revising “Plant Anatomy” for 22 years. According to her friend and colleague Dr. Ray Elvert, she considered her UC Santa Barbara years her most productive.
Dr. Jennifer Thorsch ’76,’81 joined Dr. Esau’s lab in April 1979, when Dr. Esau was 82. She hadn’t mentored a graduate student in 18 years and had a stern reputation for organization and efficiency. One day, Dr. Esau wryly remarked on the rare talent she and Jennifer shared: putting pencils away so they all faced the same direction.
“She was the world’s foremost and most famous [plant anatomist] — I used her textbooks and attended her lectures,” said Dr. Thorsch. “She was an amazing individual as a scientist but also a compassionate human.” Dr. Thorsch finished her Ph.D. in 1981 with two publications and two pending because of Dr. Esau’s excellent guidance and mentorship. Dr. Thorsch continued her collaboration and friendship with Dr. Esau until her death in 1997.
Dr. Esau’s estate gift to further plant sciences at UC Santa Barbara culminated in support for the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration (CCBER). Already the first director of the newly formed CCBER, Dr. Thorsch would also become the first Katherine Esau Director.
CCBER is a UC Santa Barbara facility dedicated to research, education, and outreach related to regional biodiversity and restoration. What makes CCBER special is a natural history collection that preserves the legacy of faculty who, like Dr. Esau, collected as part of their research. The UCSB Natural History Collections is an active research facility that houses over half a million specimens – mammals, birds, diatoms, insects, plant anatomy slides, and pressed plants.
“It’s hard to imagine CCBER without her,” said Dr. Katja Seltmann, current Katherine Esau Director. “Her gift is about preserving core science. It allows me, as the director of CCBER, to bring the center into the research mission of UC Santa Barbara.”
Dr. Seltmann points out that as science advances, so does the utility of the collection. DNA samples can check for contaminants and tell researchers about an organism’s habitat and genetic diversity. In many ways, Dr. Esau will influence plant science for generations.