Ed Ricketts: Life, Friendship, and Adventure

“Half-Christ and half-goat,”[1] this was how Edward Flanders Ricketts was described. He was a marine biologist, based in Monterey, California on Ocean View Avenue. He is known for his book, “Between Pacific Tides”, which describes the ecology of marine species from Alaska to Mexico. Ricketts is, also, known for being the inspiration of Doc in Cannery Row and for writing “The Sea of Cortez” with John Steinbeck. While Ricketts is not as well-known as his friend, John Steinbeck, he was a major influence on the writer. This essay will cover Edward Flanders Ricketts’ life, his friendship with John Steinbeck, and books, “Between Pacific Tides” and “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.”

The life of Edward Flanders Ricketts began in 1897 in Chicago. He was an inconsistent student at the University of Chicago and eventually left with no degree. He moved to California to start Pacific Biological Laboratories with A. E. Galigher. Galigher would depart from the operation, leaving Ricketts as the sole proprietor of the lab. Ricketts studied the tide pools and up and down the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to Alaska. He collected specimen in the area surrounding his lab and sent them to colleges and universities to study. He technically only married once to Anna “Nan” Maker, who he had his three children with. His children were Edward Flanders, Jr., Nancy, and Cornelia. Ricketts and Nan separated but never officially divorced, Nan took Nancy and Cornelia while Ed Jr. stayed with his father until Ed Jr. was drafted for the military.[2] Ricketts had a relationship with Toni Jackson, after they separated he ‘married’ Alice Campbell. During World War I, Ricketts was drafted into the Army and he was again drafted during World War II. Once he returned from the wars he continued to work in his lab. Then on May 7, 1948 Ricketts went to go get his dinner. His car made horrible noises, maybe that is why he did not hear the Del Monte Express. His car stalled on the train tracks and the train did not have enough time to stop.[3] He died four days later. Interestingly enough, he was fifty when he died but John Steinbeck writes in “About Ed Ricketts” that he was fifty-two.[4] While some people had suggested that Ricketts had been depressed and committed suicide, John Steinbeck dismissed the claim.[5] Steinbeck refused to engage the idea that his friend and inspiration would take his own life.

“Engaging and quick-witted, Ricketts was an intellectual force for everyone around him.”[6] Ed Ricketts was a major influence to John Steinbeck, who based several characters on Ricketts, including Doc and Friend Ed. After Ricketts’ death, Steinbeck would write an essay, “About Ed Ricketts,” telling his life story, at least the parts that Steinbeck knew or were a part of, and how Steinbeck saw him. Ricketts and Steinbeck went down to Mexico to worked on “The Sea of Cortez” together. They were both aboard the Western Flyer, looking for specimen for their book in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. They stopped in different areas along the peninsula, like Cabo San Lucas, Loreto, and Puerto San Carlos, to collect samples of the marine organism that were in the region. After Ricketts’ death, the book was changed into “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” and Ricketts was removed as an author. Months before Ricketts’ death, they were planning another expedition to the Queen Charlotte Islands. The book would have been called, The Outer Shores. “Ricketts thought of “The Outer Shores” as a northern sequel to “Sea of Cortez.”[7] Ricketts and Steinbeck had planned to start the expedition in the Summer of 1948, unfortunately they were not able to make it due to Ricketts’ death in May of that year. “Life has one final end, to be alive; and all the tricks and mechanisms, all the successes and all the failures, are aimed at that end.”[8]

Ed Ricketts is best known for two books that he helped create, Between Pacific Tides and The Sea of Cortez. “What made Between Pacific Tides revolutionary was that its organization is ecological rather than taxonomic: it categorizes animals according to habitat, not phylum or family.”[9] Ricketts organized the animals as you would find them, if you were on the beach, instead of which other animal they were related to. Ricketts wanted to write a book that would catalog the marine life along the Pacific Coast, from Alaska to Mexico. Ricketts “structured his seminal text, Between Pacific Tides…, grouping animals by five primary intertidal habitats: rocky shores, sandy beaches, sand flats, mud flats, and wharf pilings.”[10] Ricketts asked Jack Calvin “to join the project as a collaborator, assisting with collecting specimens, taking photographs, and writing text for what would become Between Pacific Tides.”[11] Ricketts and Calvin would go up and down the Pacific Coast to gather the information on the species in the different regions. Ricketts went on a similar trip with Steinbeck to the Gulf of California, where they stopped at Cabo San Lucas. “The tip of the Cape at San Lucas, with the huge gray Friars standing up on the end, has behind the rocks a little beach which is a small boy’s dream of pirates.” [12] This was a place from a fantasy, where boys could fight pirates, or be pirates, until it was time to go home. The places that Ricketts visited were beautiful. Now instead of pirates, the Cape of San Lucas has Spring Break partiers to trash the natural wonder of the area.

While Edward Flanders Ricketts is not a household name, his book is still being used by marine biologists. “Even today, 75 years after the book's publication, every marine biologist knows just where to reach for his or her own dog-eared and water-warped copy.”[13] Between Pacific Tides is still used today as a guide when one is on the Pacific Coast, it is now in its fifth edition. While there have been corrections, because the book is over 75 years old and we know more than we did then, the book has stood the test of time.