|Born||3 April 1898|
Yekaterinoslav, Russian Empire
|Died||4 June 1997 (aged 99)|
|Alma mater||University of California, Davis|
|Awards||National Medal of Science (1989)|
|Thesis||Some pathological changes in the anatomy of leaves of the sugar beet (Beta vulgaris L.) affected by the curly-top disease (1931)|
Esau was born on 3 April 1898 in Yekaterinoslav, Russian Empire (now Dnipro, Ukraine) to a family of Mennonites of German descent, so-called "Russian Mennonites". She began studying agriculture in Moscow, but after a year her family was prompted by the Bolshevik Revolution to move to Germany where she completed her studies at the Agricultural College of Berlin. This had provided training in plant breeding. The Esau family moved to California in 1922, where Esau worked for the Spreckels Sugar Company on sugar beet resistance to curly top virus.: 33–34 From 1927 Esau was employed as a graduate assistant in the Botany Division and resumed her education at the University of California, Davis, through registering for a PhD degree at University of California Berkeley in 1928 (Davis did not have a graduate school at this time). Her doctoral committee were W.W. Robbins, (botanist and the chair), T.H. Goodspeed, cytologist, and T.E. Rawlins, plant pathologist. She was formally awarded a doctorate in 1931 which was granted by UC Berkeley in 1932. She was also elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society in 1932. Esau then joined the faculty in the new post of Junior Botanist in the Experimental Station of the College of Agriculture, and remained until her retirement at age 67.: 33–34
Esau was a pioneering plant anatomist and her books Plant Anatomy (1953) and Anatomy of Seed Plants (1960) were key plant structural biology texts for four decades. Her early work in plant anatomy focused on the effect of viruses on plants, specifically on plant tissue and development.
Her doctoral research had changed from field to laboratory study of curly top virus disease of sugar beet because of the difficulty of containing field infections with the disease. This led to her focus on plant anatomy and especially phloem tissue that was the subject of her scientific career. She soon discovered that the virus spread through the plants along the phloem. She began applying electron microscopy to her research in 1960.
Esau worked at the University of California, Davis and eventually became a full professor of botany. While teaching, she continued her research on viruses and specifically phloem, the food conducting tissue in plants. In the 1950s, she collaborated with botanist Vernon Cheadle on more phloem research. Her treatise The Phloem (1969) was published as Volume 5 of the Handbuch der Pflanzenanatomie. This volume has been recognized as the most important of the series and was a definitive source of information about phloem. Ray Evert, one of Esau's graduate students, says: "The book Plant Anatomy brought to life what previously had seemed to me to be a rather dull subject. I was not the only one so affected. Plant Anatomy had an enormous impact worldwide, literally bringing about a revivification of the discipline." However, Esau was unaffected by the recognition accorded her, and she told David Russell, who compiled her oral history, "I don't know how I happened to be elected [for the National Medal of Science]. I have no idea what impressed them about me." She was official mentor to only 15 doctoral students but her exceptional ability as a teacher was recognised and appreciated by many.
In 1963, she was promoted to full professor at Davis.: 34
After retiring from the University of California, Davis, she moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1965 where Cheadle was now Chancellor, and continued research well into her 90s, publishing a total of 162 articles and five books.
When asked by Elga Wasserman to reflect on her education and career, Esau wrote in 1973 that scientific activities dominated her career and added, "I found ways of maintaining spiritual independence while adjusting myself to established policies. . . . I have never felt that my career was being affected by the fact that I am a woman.": 33–34 In addition that, 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."
Many of Esau's publications are housed and available for loan from the Cornelius Herman Muller library at the University of California, Santa Barbara's Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration.
In memory of her contributions as a lecturer, author and scientist, the Katherine Esau Award is awarded to the graduate student who presents the best paper in structural and developmental biology at the annual meeting of the Botanical Society of America.
Esau established the Katherine Esau Fellowship Program in 1993 at the University of California, Davis. This supports post-doctoral, junior faculty and some summer graduate fellowships.
Her books modernised plant anatomy teaching and were in use into the twenty-first century: