William Ritter Chronology

William Emerson Ritter Chronology



George Eason (William Emerson Ritter’s cousin) begins to buy up land in Wisconsin (particularly Columbia and Jefferson Counties).



March 28: Seneca Dwight Ritter (William Emerson Ritter’s Uncle) buys a plot of land from George Eason in Hampden Township, Wisconsin, for $400.

Nelson Ritter (William Emerson Ritter’s Uncle) travels to California for the gold rush. He mines on the American River (Sacramento).

The father of Mary Bennett (William Emerson Ritter’s future wife)  also seeks his treasure in California gold.

California Gold Rush begins; Ignaz Semmelwiess investigates childbirth fever.



October 4: Horatio (William’s father) buys a small plot from Seneca. Leonora (William’s mother) stays in Truxton, New York, to have the baby (Ella Louise).

Florence Nightingale recommends cleaning hospitals, dramatically reducing the death rate


1854 or 1855

Leonora and her parents, Nathan and Ruby Eason, join Horatio in Wisconsin.



Ezra and Mary Ritter (grandparents) come from Syracuse to help Horatio and Lenora with the new baby.

Leonora Eason Ritter gives birth to William Emerson, in Hampden Township, Wisconsin, on November 19.

While dinosaurs had been scientifically described since 1824, this year was the discovery of the first Neanderthal skeleton; Lord Kelvin, a geologist, estimates the age of the universe at 25 million years.


1867, Age 10

June: William’s first letter to grandparents. He has weeded the garden, and about their colt. He enjoys school very much.

U.S. buys Alaska from Russia.


1875, Age 18

William thinks he wants to go to school in the nearby town of Columbus, if he can afford it.

Sioux Wars in the Dakota Territories


1876, Age 19

April 29th: Ezra Ritter, his grandfather, dies at age 83

Uncle Nelson visits in the summer.

William gets ready to go to school.

Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone; Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn.


1877, Age 20

February, In school at Columbus

April, back at Hampden.

May 24th, Mary Ritter, his grandmother, dies at age 84

Summer in Hampden.

First telephone line is built


1878, Age 21

January in school again.

April: Home again. Not sure what he wants to do with his life.

July: School out, in Hampden again. Thinking of going into law, since “nothing else interests him.”

November: Starts teaching at the school in Hampden district. Reluctantly has quit going to school in Columbus, due to the teaching. Made an agreement with the teacher of the Columbus school to continue.


1879, Age 22

March: Plans to continue his schooling at College in Oshkos.

April, writing to Uncle Nelson: “For all but three or four boys are strangers and it is impossible to share alone. Do not understand that I am homesick or discontented; far from it. But I have lived in Oshkosh longer in one week than I have ever lived in any other place in one month.”

Thomas Edison invents the electric light.


1880, Age 23

May: left school for financial reasons, is teaching at the Columbus Grammar School to earn money ($30 a month) so that he can return to the Oshkosh Normal School. He lives in Columbus with his sister Flora.

In July, he lives with William Lewis, a farmer in Columbus.


1881, Age 24

September: He starts teaching at Oconto, Wisconsin (north of Green Bay). He is happy about it, earning $500 for ten months. He is studying when he is not teaching.

October: The first breakthrough! He begins to see the importance of science as a way of thought, and how the knowledge of science is a necessity for the human condition.

December: Continues to enjoy teaching. Working with the children–very thoughtful perspective, even systemic. Working to harmonize science and religion.

President Garfield assassinated; Booker T. Washington becomes the President of the Tuskegee Institute.


1884, Age 27

Graduated from State Normal School at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with a teaching certificate. He was inspired by Joseph LeConte’s Elements of Geology, deciding to pursue science. He went to the University of California to study under Joseph LeConte. He taught to secure money for school.


1885, Age 28

Arrives in California. Spent the first year teaching in Fresno in order to earn his tuition.

Meets Mary (his future wife) in Fresno.


1888, Age 31

Finished his BA in two years. His graduating class had 81 men and 3 women. (there was about 700 total students in the university). After his finals, he had to take tests to measure his knowledge of subjects that he had a long time ago. He was nervous about them, because the subjects were long out of his mind. He passed them, and graduated from the University of California with a Bachelors in Science. He stayed on to do graduate study, and teaching in chemistry.

Woods Hole begun by Charles Whitman.


1889, Age 32

He got a scholarship to go to Harvard, where he worked on his MA and PhD.

Fall: Arrives at Harvard.


1890, Age 33

May 22: Damaris Ritter (his aunt, Seneca’s wife) dies after a stroke at the age of 67.

Spends the summer in Agassiz’s Marine Laboratory in Newport, Rhode Island. Described it as “very satisfactory.”

Wounded knee, the last battle with the Native Americans.


1891, Age 34

The Berkeley board of Regents appoints Ritter an “instructor” in biology. His supervisor is Joseph LeConte, who had written the textbook that inspired him.

April: Tells Uncle Nelson he is anxious to get back to California, and will stop at Wisconsin. He is anxious to get married. Joseph LeConte, “his superior at the university” will be in Europe next year, and will leave Berkeley in July. He wants to see LeConte before he leaves for Europe.

May: Earned his MA at Harvard. He was sufficiently far along on his PhD to go back to Berkeley.

June: stops in at Otsego.

Joseph LeConte’s massive chair (botany, geology, zoology, and paleontology) at the University at Berkeley was divided into four departments (although not all were separated in 1891). The department of zoology was formed . Ritter (an instructor in biology) was chosen as the head of the zoology department. This was the first laboratory instruction in zoology. Ritter served in that position from 1891-1909, and then Charles Kofoid took over.

June 23, Married Mary E. Bennett, a Berkeley physician, and lecturer at Berkeley. Honeymooned at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. He meets Fred and Charlotte Baker, which, ten years later, would be a profound importance by introducing him to E.W. Scripps.

Discovery of Homo Erectus.


1892, Age 35

The University of California provides him with $200 to establish a summer instruction program in marine biology. Ritter purchases a tent and some equipment, sets up a lab at Pacific Grove, with some students, on Monterey Bay. However, the well-financed Timothy Hopkins laboratory from Stanford University building made Ritter’s tent embarrassingly small.

He spent the next 11 years conducting summer field-study sessions along the California coast while searching for a permanent home.


1893, Age 36

Set up a lab (tent) at Avalon on Santa Catalina Island.

In May he took his examinations for the Doctor of Philosophy. Earned his PhD from Harvard. His dissertation was on the blind Goby fish.


1894, Age 37

May: Back in Otsego for a visit; Then to New York.

No lab because the Ritters were going to Europe. He was on Sabbattical. Became an Assistant Professor of Biology; Went to Europe; Studied in Liverpool with Professor Herdman, at the Zoological Station in Naples with Anton Dohrn, and the University of Berlin.


1895, Age 38

In the summer, while, the Ritters were still in Europe, the students went to San Pedro under the guidance of Professor H.P. Johnson. This trip gave more excitement about Southern California as a place to have a lab.

July: Returns from Europe; Stop for a visit in Otsego. Parents are still very sick.

Louis Pasteur dies.


1896, Age 39

Mother died on May 23rd from “tumors”; Father dies on June 30 of cancer.  William writes to Uncle Nelson, “there is also… a sad sweetness in the spectacle of two persons so long companions in life also retaining their companionship in death. ”

No summer lab.


1897, Age 40

No summer lab due to lack of funds.


1898, Age 41

Made Associate professor; trip to Yosemite.

Spanish American War.


1899, Age 42

Elected the president of the California Academy of Sciences.

May 31: Left for the Harriman Expedition to the coast of Alaska. He doggedly collected marine invertebrates, camping in the harsh environment rather than stay on the relative comfort of the boat. Traveled with John Muir, the father of the conservation movement.

July 30: Harriman Expedition returns to Seattle.


1900, Age 43

A letter on December 12: Ritter proposes to new UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler that funds be raised to establish a permanent marine biological station at San Pedro. The President was supportive.

$1800 was raised from Los Angeles friends for next summer’s work. A “small and ancient bathhouse” was rented and reconstructed to form a lab at San Pedro.

Charles Kofoid, professor of zoology, joins the staff, and together with Ritter became a great team to carry forward the plan of a permanent lab. W.J. Raymond of the department of physics joined the zoology staff, and was put in charge of the hydrographic work.

President McKinley elected. Chinese Boxer rebellion.


1901, Age 44

In spring, the University contributed a little to the lab, for summer expenses.

Summer at San Pedro. Formal classes are offered. Intensive study begins with dredging, a red tide, and other marine animals. Charles Kofoid, Frank Bancroft, and Harry Torrey join the staff. They wanted this to become the permanent facility, equaling or surpassing the lab at Naples. Kofoid took charge of the work on the ocean, with their rented boat, the Elsie.

Ritter wants to explore San Diego as a site before committing to San Pedro. Fred Baker was convinced that a San Diego site would be the best.

The financial situation did not look good.

Ritter’s mentor, Joseph LeConte, dies.

President McKinley assassinated; Teddy Roosevelt becomes president.


1902, Age 45

Ritter continues to try to raise money for the San Pedro site. Harriman wasn’t interested in contributing.

In the late Spring, Fred Baker suggested that they use a San Diego facility. Charles Kofoid was enthusiastic about a site in San Diego. Baker and Ritter correspond, and Ritter was enthusiastic. He declined the immediate year, because of the hassle of transferring equipment, but left the door open for future work.

With no boat, and no money to rent a boat, the studies had to be done from the shoreline. Classes were conducted, but it was obvious the fundraising was showing to be a failure.

The site at San Pedro ran into problems. An increase in industrial work, harbor improvements, and some sewage became barriers to the collecting areas.

Ritter wrote in 1902 (reported in the 1912 Marine Biological Station), “Like Elijah of old, we stand before the lord, hungry, but full of trust, and therefore expecting the ravens laden with bread and meat to appear at any moment.” Despite the problems, Ritter doggedly believed something would happen, that the idea was good enough to make it work. And that good thing would happen next summer.

Made Full professor.


1903, Age 49

Fred Baker again suggests that he look in San Diego for his permanent facility. Ritter responds that a lab can be moved if funds can be raised in San Diego (in San Pedro, fundraising was dubious and the biological outlook was grim because of all the construction). In the spring, Baker, a shell collector, and his wife begin to successfully fundraise. Baker calls on E.W. Scripps, who contributes $500. His half sister contributes $100. Baker suggest Ritter meet with E.W. Scripps and his sister Ellen.

The Hotel del Coronado allows Ritter and the students to use their beach house as a summer lab.

March: Ritter looks over the boat house, meets with the chamber of commerce, exploring the bay, etc.

March 27: Ellen Scripps attends Ritter’s lecture on marine life, meeting him for the first time.

Baker secures the best Portuguese fishermen (Manuel Cabral) to run the boat. The rented schooner Lura would be used for the summer session.

They begin converting the boat house at the hotel into a lab.

Classes began in mid June. Ritter and Baker wondered if there would be too many distractions in the resort town of Coronado (concerts, dances, performances by artists).

July 18: E.W. Scripps, at Ritter’s invitation, comes to the hotel and meets Ritter for the first time.

July 28: E.W. Scripps sends an automobile to pick up Ritter and Kofoid, to visit Scripps at his home. Scripps suggests he will help if the right project is put forth–something that interests him.

August 2: Ritter and Scripps and Ellen Scripps meet. Scripps suggests an association to support the laboratory. Gives Ritter $100.

Late August: Ellen Scripps pays Ritter a visit at the University.

Sept 26: The Marine Biological Association of San Diego is formed.  The purpose is to secure “the foundation and endowment of a scientific institution to be known as the San Diego Marine Biological Institution. The general purposes of the institution, in turn, would be to “carry on a biological and hydrographic survey of the waters of the Pacific Ocean adjacent to the coast of Southern California; to build and maintain a public aquarium and museum; and to prosecute such other kindred undertakings as the Board of Trustees may from time to time deem it wise to enter upon.” Ritter is named Scientific Director (hoping to make contributions to the scientific understanding of human nature and social problems). Several professional people supported the endeavor. Homer Peters was the President, Ellen Scripps the Vice-President, Fred Baker the secretary, and Julius Wangenheim (a bank president) became the treasurer.

Through the work of the officers, Ritter could finally draw on monies that he knew would be there, at least $4500 a year for three years.

Ritter worked with local fisherman to collect specimens of marine animals.

E.W. Scripps wrote a letter to the President of the University to make it become part of the University. The President, always supportive, agreed, although had no extra funds to put toward it.

Wright brothers make first flight.


1904, Age 47

William Ritter and Baker took on more of the day-to-day duties of the Marine Biological Association.

March: E.W. Scripps offered his boat, the Loma, to be used by the association for scientific purposes. It was towed to San Francisco to be refitted with dredging tools and scientific equipment.

May: The trustees requested to “have plans drawn for a building large enough to meet the requirements of the association when fully developed, but on such a plan that a part can be constructed for immediate use, and added to as the necessity may demand.” Ritter drew up plans for a huge facility. Scripps wanted to start out small.

May 16: The summer session at Coronado began. Charles Kofoid began the sessions while Ritter was overseeing the boat’s refit. There was a regular staff of twelve.

In the summer, William Ritter and Mary were in a buggy accident, when the horse slipped off a ledge and plunged into a dry riverbed. Mary says (p. 262) “with my usual ambition I had got there even ahead of the horse.” She broke her collarbone and a few ribs, and was in bed for many months. William Ritter submitted her resignation from the University.

In the autumn, Ritter went to the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in St. Louis. Mary, often confined to a wheelchair, went with him.

The association hired B. M. Davis, for year-round work.

In December, The Loma had not yet been finished. E.W. Scripps was angry. Baker feared he would withdraw his support, but Ritter had more confidence in Scripps’ staying power.


1905, Age 48

January: an entire issue of the University of California publication in zoology was devoted to the work at San Diego.

March: Alexander Agassiz, the father of modern oceanography, pays a visit and contributes to the endeavor.

April: bids are taken to draw up plans for the lab in La Jolla.

June: The little green laboratory was constructed, the first permanent facility. Fred Baker continues his fundraising.

Ritter writes about the mission of the institution. The staff give weekly lectures in San Diego with information on their collections and findings.

E.W. Scripps convinced the board to buy a 170-acre parcel–the same site that the Institute owns today.

The Ritters built a home in La Jolla Cove (north of San Diego).

November: They start to get wind of a possible sewer dumping sewage into the cove.


1906, Age 49

William and Mary left in January for a trip to Asia (he got a sabbatical). They saw Hawaii; in March they arrived in Japan (to sightsee and visit the fisheries, eel farms, and Biological station at the University of Tokyo; they were in Japan when they heard of the San Francisco earthquake. They waited a month before receiving accurate information–after being told Berkeley had sunk into the Pacific Ocean). In June they saw the Philippines.

They had a group of people in Del Mar offering lots of land and other enticements. If the sewage problem were to continue to be a problem, the institution could move to Del Mar. Scripps wrote the Mayor of San Diego a letter to that effect.

Kofoid, running the institute in Ritter’s absence, invited several eastern scientists to spend a few weeks there at the institution’s expense. This included E.L. Mark of Harvard, H.S. Jennings of Johns Hopkins, and E.B. Wilson of Columbia.

July 25: The Loma, the group’s research vessel, was wrecked on some rocks. Scripps said, “at least it will kill the damn fleas.”  Ellen Scripps gave $50,000 for a new boat.

Actively sought to interest Andrew Carnegie, Edward Harriman, and others.

The Ritters returned to Berkeley in September. They barely recognized the city from the earthquake.

San Francisco earthquake.


1907, Age 50

March: A contract is signed to build a new boat.

August 10: At the insistence of Scripps, the Marine Biological Association purchases 170 acres for $1000 at a City Hall bid. Others agreed not to bid. It was worth $30,000 to $50,000.

August: The Alexander Agassiz is launched. One of the first research vessels.

The staff consisted of 15 people

Sept 1: The little green laboratory is built and formally dedicated.


1908, Age 51

Summered in La Jolla

Formally discussed the aims of the Marine Biological Association with E.W. and Ellen.


1909, Age 52

Charles Kofoid takes over the Department of Zoology chair. Ritter and Mary move from Berkeley to La Jolla, to give up teaching to work full-time at the Marine Biological Association. A laboratory was converted into a home.


1910, Age 53

E.W. Scripps expresses frustration that the buildings and equipment are too luxurious.

Ritter was sick for nine months with double pneumonia and pleurisy and infection, in late 1910 and early 1911. By March he was recovering.

Alexander Agassiz (1835-1910) dies.


1912, Age 55

The Marine Biological Association affairs and property were transferred to the University of California. The name was changed to the Scripps Institution for  Biological Research of the University of California.

By this time, Ellen Scripps had donated $200,000 for buildings and Ritter’s salary.

Alfred Wegener publishes Continental Drift theory.


1913, Age 56

A business manager is hired to free Ritter from his administrative duties. Cottages are built by E.W. Scripps for the staff.

The state of California makes its first donation to the Scripps Institution.


1914, Age 57

Scripps pays for a scientific secretary for Ritter (Frank E. Thone), freeing him (and especially Mary!) for more scientific duties.

The entry into the War took many of the young scientists. Ritter worked on the fisheries for the federal government, and Mary gave lectures.

June 28, WWI begins with the assassination of Ferdinand. By September, most European companies are at war; Panama Canal completed.


1915, Age 58

Ritter wrote: War, Science, and Civilization

Discussed the possibility of training scientists to write on scientific subjects in a popular vein.  He was very worried about the lack of accurate information in the public.

Major and minor improvements at Scripps.

First San Francisco-New York telephone call.


1916, Age 59

More cottages added (now 26) for existing staff and employees and visiting scientists.

Uncle Nelson dies.

Blackjack Pershing invades Mexico to capture Poncho Villa.


1917, age 60

The war weighed heavy on Ritter, as many people were accusing scientists of making more efficient ways to kill people. Ritter began advocating for science.

Eugenicist Galton Society founded; April, United States declares War. In July, the first American forces arrive in Europe.


1918, Age 61

Ritter wrote: The Higher Usefulness of Science, and Other Essays

Ritter wrote: The Probable Infinity of Nature and Life

In the post-war years, Ritter became interested in the League of Nations (where nations could work to understand each other rather than go to war, an important principle for Ritter and his biological thinking), and attended many meetings to help; he began to be interested in the world’s food supply.

November 11, WWI ends; Influenza pandemic, which kills more people than the war.


1919, Age 62

Scripps and Ritter begin constant conversation about the need to disseminate science information to educate the public for a successful democracy. He began a series of lectures to educate people about the need for a League of Nations–a place for countries to come and talk rationally about problems.

A symposium was held, featuring John Hopkins, Princeton, Harvard, and the University of CA, with Ritter as the leader.

Ritter wrote: The Unity of the Organism

Ritter wrote: Organismal Conception of Life

Ritter wrote: An Organismal Theory of Consciousness

Women can vote with the 19th amendment


1920, Age 63

A repeat symposium (of the 1919 symposium) was held.

E.W. Scripps feels that a newspaper is the only way to disseminate information to the public (“a magazine will only be read by those who have acquired the magazine habit”).

September: Spent three weeks living with the Navajo Indians on their reservation.

League of Nations holds first meeting.


1921, Age 64

The Science Service, a news report backed by Scripps, commenced in January and February. Ritter takes a six-month leave from Scripps Institution. EE Slosson heads the science service.

Ritter decides to leave Scripps to take over the Science Service.


1922, Age 65

In February, he rescues a girl who caught herself on fire. He was more badly burned than she was.

Mary was in a car accident.

Ritter, persuaded to stay on one year past retirement at Scripps, spends time this year looking for a new director.

Anti evolution legislation appeared. Slosson (head of the science service) did little, as he was against “propaganda.”


1923, Age 66

Retired as the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and returned to Berkeley. T. Wayland Vaughan accepted the position as director.

July, Took part in the 1923 Pan Pacific Scientific Congress in Australia.


1925, Age 68

Ritter goes to Washington to take the reigns of the science service, for really the first time.

Australopithecus africanus described.


1926, Age 69

March 12, E.W. Scripps dies aboard his yacht, probably of a stroke, and is buried at sea.


1927, Age 70

Ritter wrote: The Natural History of Our Conduct (with Dr. Edna Bailey)

Charles Lindberg’s transatlantic flight


1929, Age 72

Elected an Associate of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Beginning of the Great Depression.


1931, Age 74

Went to England for the International Congress of Science and Technology.


1933, Age 76

Received his LL.D. (Doctor of Laws) from the University of California


1935, Age 78

Mary Ritter received her LL.D. from the University of California.


1937, Age 80

Amelia Earhart lost


1938, Age 81

Ritter wrote: The California Woodpecker and I.


1939, Age 82

Beginning of WWII in Europe.


1944, Age 87

January 10: Died after an illness.




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