Esau's Career as a Plant Anatomist


                                                                   Animal Science and Horticulture buildings, UC Davis 1928

UC Davis, 1932-1963

Dr. Esau graduated from Berkeley in 1932 and began her employment at UC Davis as Instructor and Junior Botanist in the Botany Division, advancing to full professor in 1949. When she began teaching at Davis, it had limited programs and facilities, being mainly a campus that supported agricultural sciences. She had very limited research space, sharing a converted garage with faculty and students until 1960.

"The tables were made of 2x2 boards painted black and supported by pipes as legs. The chairman alone had a regular desk. The illumination for student's microscopy consisted of ordinary light bulbs covered with asparagus cans. A piece of tin, bent at a right angle and provided with holes of two sizes, one in each half, served as a diaphragm for the control of light for higher magnifications lenses." (Katherine Esau: A Life of Achievements, p. 25) Esau conducted much of her photomicrography at home under better conditions.


                                               Botany building, UC Davis 1930s                                  Esau's lab and classroom


                                                                                              Asparagus can light source

Throughout her career, she studied phloem, the food conducting tissue in plants. She examined the effects of the phloem-limited viruses on plant structure and development, and the unique structure of the sieve elements, the food conducting cells, using electron microscopy. Dr. Esau had an exceptional ability for attacking basic problems, and she set new standards of excellence for the investigation of anatomical problems in the plant sciences.

During her tenure at UC Davis, Dr. Esau received many honors and distinctions, including a Certificate of Merit on the Golden Jubilee Anniversary of the Botanical Society of America in 1956. Dr. Esau also served as the President of the Botanical Society of America in 1951. In 1957 Esau was honored as the sixth woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences and she received an honorary degree from Mills College, Oakland in 1962.

UC Santa Barbara, 1963-1997

In 1963, Dr. Esau decided to move to Santa Barbara to continue her collaboration with Dr. Vernon I. Cheadle, who had been appointed Chancellor of the UC campus. Drs. Esau and Cheadle had been research colleagues at UC Davis for ten years studying the comparative structure of the food conducting tissue in higher plants.

Dr. Esau considered her years in Santa Barbara to be her most productive and fulfilling. She had been introduced to electron microscopy just before leaving Davis, and she was interested in applying this new tool to her anatomical research. An electron microscope, the first on the Santa Barbara campus, was purchased and installed soon after her arrival. Although Dr. Esau retired in 1965, she remained actively engaged in research for 24 more years. In 1989, Dr. Esau was awarded the President's National Medal of Science by George Bush. The citation accompanying the medal reads:

"In recognition of her distinguished service to the American community of plant biologists, and for the excellence of her pioneering research, both basic and applied, on plant structure and development, which has spanned more than six decades; for her superlative performance as an educator, in the classroom and through her books; for the encouragement and inspiration she has given to a legion of young, aspiring plant biologists; and for providing a special role model for women in science."

On Being a Woman Scientist

Katherine Esau was a role model for students around the world, and she was also honored in the popular press and acknowledged by several presidents. In January 1971, Ladies Home Journal (88: 71-73) voted her one of the 75 "Most Important Women" in America. Sharing this award with Esau were other women, chosen by author Donald Robinson, "who had made the greatest impact on our civilization within the last 5 years," such as Joan Baez, Lady Bird Johnson, Barbra Streisand, Jackie Onassis, and Coretta Scott King.

Dr. Ray Evert, Esau's colleague for many years, reflects on gender issues in an oral history conducted by David Russell: "Dr. Esau has had women's groups ask her to talk about her career and the rough times she had in a man's world. Amazingly, she never thought of herself as being discriminated against. That isn't the way people operate today. A lot of women are concerned and rightfully so. It never occurred to Dr. Esau that maybe she had a handicap just because of her gender. She just worked on and gained worldwide recognition. She was so outstanding that it was hard for people not to admire her. So much of the recognition she received came very late, but she never showed any resentment. She just took it in stride. She was doing what made her happy."

After being asked in 1992 if she saw herself as a pioneer woman in science, Esau replied, "This is such a funny thing. I never worried about being a woman. It never occurred to me that that was an important thing. I always thought that women could do just as well as men. Of course, the majority of women are not trained to think that way. They are trained to be homemakers. And I was not a homemaker."


Dr. Esau was especially well known for her beautifully written and comprehensive textbooks. Her first book on plant anatomy for John Wiley and Sons was begun in the late 1940s. Plant Anatomy was published in 1953, and it became a classic almost immediately. The book was and still is fondly called the "bible" for structural botanists. Dr. Esau's developmental approach and thorough presentation of the structure and development of a wide variety of economically important plants resulted in a book that revitalized plant anatomy throughout the world.

In 1961 Anatomy of Seed Plants was published for less comprehensive courses. Through these books, Dr. Esau provided a standardized and unified terminology and usage of vocabulary for plant anatomy.

For more information, see a complete list of Esau's publications and her curriculum vitae.

Portions of this page have been adapted with permission from Jennifer Thorsch's article in In Memoriam, "Katherine Esau 1898-1997."