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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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The 1899 Expedition
The 1899
Expedition


 

Original Participants
Original
Participants

Brief Chronology
Brief
Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Science
Aboard the
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History of Exploration
Exploration &
Settlement

Development Along Alaska's Coast
Growth Along Alaska's Coast

Alaska Native Communities
Alaska
Natives

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William E. Ritter

1856 - 1944


William E. Ritter

William E. Ritter.
Source: Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library.
William Ritter was from Wisconsin, born in 1856. A farm boy, he took a teacher's certificate at the State Normal School in Oshkosh, then, inspired by Joseph LeConte's Elements of Geology, decided to pursue science further. He worked his way to the University of California to study under LeConte, and proved himself an apt researcher. By 1893, he had completed a Ph.D. at Harvard, and was appointed chair of the newly formed zoology department at Berkeley.

Like the work of most zoologists, Ritter's studies were specific and minutely focused. He studied the eye structures of one species of lizard, for example, and the morphology of particular worms. But he was an expansive thinker, and in his later writings argued for a more philosophical approach to research. "The organism in its totality," he wrote, "is as essential to an explanation of its elements as its elements are to an explanation of the organism." In other words, to understand the structure of a lizard's eye, you must understand the entire lizard. From 1893 on, he studied sea and coastal creatures in California, becoming one of the few experts in this relatively unstudied branch of zoology. It was this expertise that led Merriam to invite Ritter on the Harriman Expedition.

Aboard ship, Ritter was known as one of the "worm men," for his dogged method of collecting marine invertebrates. Along with several other scientists, he camped for ten days on Popof Island, giving up the luxury of the Elder for a damp canvas tent. But the stay on Popof was successful, as Ritter collected many specimens of interest. The collection showed, among other things, the way species were distributed along the Pacific Coast of North America.

After the trip, Ritter returned to teaching and research in California, and put a good deal of effort into establishing the Scripps Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. At Scripps, one can see how Ritter's insistence on knowing the organic whole as well as its individual parts played out: instead of hiring only biologists, he also brought on physicists, chemists, and geneticists to study the full marine environment. He retired in Berkeley, where he died in 1944.

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