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Katherine Esau: 1898-1997.
Katherine Esau, international expert on plant structure and winner of the 1989 National Medal of Science, died June 4. "She absolutely dominated the field of plant anatomy and morphology for several decades," said Dr. Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden. "She set the stage for all kinds of modern advances in plant physiology and molecular biology. You have to understand the structure of plants first before you can unravel the questions of molecular biology."

Katherine Esau was born in Ukraine to a family of Mennonites of German descent. Her studies in agriculture were interrupted by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. She and her family fled, riding on a wagon for two weeks to reach Germany, where she worked on farms and continued her studies, graduating in 1922. With her parents she emigrated to the U.S. and settled in a Mennonite community near Fresno, California, where she joined the Spreckels Company near Salinas, to work on a sugar beet that would be resistant to the curly top virus. She was invited to the University of California at Davis in 1927, and arrived with a truckload of beets and beet seed. Esau achieved her doctorate in 1931 doing her research on the Davis campus where she joined the faculty. Her seminal book, The Anatomy of Seed Plants, was published in 1960 and updated in 1977. In 1963 Dr. Esau moved to the Santa Barbara campus, intending to retire in two years; however, her interest in electron microscopy led her to keep working and publishing.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Barbara Johnston