Field of Science

Who is your favorite scientist?

One of my favorite scientists is Dr. Katherine Esau. I think that her book Anatomy of Seed Plants is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the structure of plants. It is just too bad that the text doesn't cover bryophytes and ferns. I would love to read her interpretations and thoughts for teaching students about bryophyte structures. We have tried using other textbooks to teach a university level plant anatomy course, such as Introduction to Plant Structure and Development, but ended up returning to Esau's text. The text is a little dated (the second edition came out in 1977), but only in the sense that it does not include the most recent literature and thus lacks a molecular perspective. (Books on plant structure and development that connect to gene function, which I like, include The Molecular Organography of Plants and Mechanisms in Plant Development.) Recently a 3rd edition of Esau's Anatomy of Seed Plants has been updated by Ray Evert. This version is a nice addition, but in my opinion is much more a reference book for your shelf than a text to be used for teaching. I think that Esau's Anatomy of Seed Plants is the best text to teach students the basics of interpreting plant structures.

Dr. Esau in 1958. Image from the collection of UC Santa Barbara,
Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration

Dr. Esau's early life was full of twists and turns. Her family fled Czarist Russia to Berlin in 1918/1919. Then she immigrated to the United States in 1922 and continued her studies out in California. A couple of nice articles have been written that summarize her life story. One is published in the Plant Science Bulletin and the other is in The Botanical Review.

Her research focused on the development and structure of plant phloem. Phloem are the cells that move sugars around inside the plant body. One of her major research tools was the electron microscope, pictured below. I think that electron microscopes are a lot of fun to use. It is amazing how far you can zoom in and all the cellular details that you can see! 

Dr. Esau working at the microscope.
Image from the collection of UC Santa Barbara,
Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration

I was inspired to write this post by the blog Dead Scientist of the Week


  1. When taking plant anatomy way back then (over 40 years ago) as a graduate student, we were thrilled even then to find that the phloem slides we were using were handmade and bore the initials K.E. No wonder they looked like the text's pictures!

  2. I hope that students will continue to appreciate her spectacular slides and images for years to come. It is really great that her work was acknowledged and appreciated during her lifetime. So many people do great work that is not praised until long after they are gone. Thanks for sharing!


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