Ralph Emerson (botanist)

Ralph Emerson (1912–1979) was a well-known Botanist, academic, and professor at the University of California, Berkeley who made contributions to the fields of botany, biology, and mycology through his years of research and emphasis on aquatic and thermophilic fungi.


Ralph Emerson was born in 1912 in New York City, the youngest of five children of Grace and Haven Emerson. Emerson spent his early life in New York City before attending Harvard University to obtain his Bachelors, Masters, and PhD successively. It was during this time that he began his research into aquatic fungi, specifically the Allomyces, a research passion that would continue with him for most of his academic career. Following his PhD, Emerson spent two years as a National Research Council fellow, one year back at Harvard as a research fellow, and in 1940 he began his career as a professor at the University of California – Berkeley. He remained at UC Berkeley for mostly the rest of his academic career, minus the two sabbaticals to Costa Rica. He married Enid Merle Budelman in 1942, together having two children, Peter and Grace Emerson. Throughout his life, Emerson contributed greatly to the scientific community, as well as through his dedicated and passionate teaching efforts before passing away after a year-long battle with cancer. Emerson died in 1979, at 67, survived by his wife, two children, and six grandchildren.[1]

Areas of study

Since the beginning of his academic career, Ralph Emerson had an interest in water molds, beginning with the genus Allomyces. His focus was broadly biological, focusing on growth and nutritional requirements, but with an ultimate goal of classification and biosystematics. One of his major contributions was a paper on they cytogenetics and cytotaxonomy of Allomyces. Beyond Allomyces and other common water molds, Emerson made major contributions with his research on Thermophiles, especially in Eumycota, on fermentative water molds, and in looking for low oxygen tolerant tropical water molds on his sabbaticals to Costa Rica.[2][3][4]

Teaching and academic highlights

Though an accomplished researcher, Ralph Emerson had an immense passion for teaching. He was a dedicated professor and advisor. His Biology 101 class was incredibly popular, but also known for its uncompromising demands and time commitment. Outside of the classroom, Emerson was a meticulous planner and preparer, making sure that all lectures were perfectly prepared, but also that materials and live samples were available for students to see the processes discussed in class first hand. Ralph Emerson was continually praised by his students, and his graduate students considered him a lifelong friend and colleague.[1]

Emerson served actively on many boards and committees throughout his academic career, seeing them as a way to maintain the high quality of education he sought to deliver. Those responsibilities, along with his research and publications, always came secondary to teaching however.

Ralph Emerson gained many offices and honors throughout his successful career, both in the United States as well as internationally. He was member of the National Academy of Sciences as well as The Academy of Arts and Sciences, president of the Mycological Society of America and the Botanical Society of America. He held international positions and was awarded as a fellow in multiple international organizations, and was a keynote speaker for the First International Mycological Congress. At the University of California, Berkeley, Emerson started as an instructor and worked his way up to Professor, Research Professor, and finally Chairman of the Botany department.[3]

Interesting notes

In 1935, Emerson was a photographer for an expedition to the west coast of Mexico whose goal was to gather data and photographs of the local fish in order to put together a book on the Pacific Coastal game fish. According to a distinguished ichthyologist, Emerson's photos were some of the best he had ever seen.


  1. 1 2 "University of California:In Memoriam 1980". University of California. 1980. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
  2. Emerson, Ralph (1950). "Current trends of experimental research on the aquatic Phycomycetes". Annual Reviews in Microbiology 4.1: 169–200.
  3. 1 2 Emerson, Ralph; Held, Abraham (1969). "Aqualinderella fermentans gen. et sp. n., a phycomycete adapted to stagnant waters. II. Isolation, cultural characteristics, and gas relations". American Journal of Botany: 1103–1120.
  4. Fuller, Melvin (1985). "Ralph Emerson 1912–1979: A Biographical Memoir by Melvin S. Fuller". National Academy of Sciences.
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