The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1981, Volume 27, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Scripps Institution of Oceanography Senior Writer

Images from the article

THE IDEA BEGAN in Pacific Grove but it came to fruition in San Diego in 1903. Los Angeles made a grab for it, but then decided to build a breakwater and so lost its bid. The promise of five hundred dollars, an empty boathouse and a launch brought to San Diego the dream that became the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

What a remarkable amalgam were those turn-of-the-century scientists and San Diegans who began this undertaking: William E. Ritter, Fred Baker, Edward W. Scripps, Ellen Browning Scripps, Julius Wangenheim, Charles A. Kofoid, E.S. Babcock, Manuel Cabral, H.P. Wood…. Most of them were transplanted midwesterners who soon became San Diego boosters.

Fred Baker was the catalyst. Called “Dr. Fred” by his friends, Baker was a physician who collected seashells very professionally as a hobby. He made a point of getting acquainted with every biologist who visited San Diego. Among those were two honeymooners in 1891 who spent a day collecting specimens of a small rare fish, the blind goby, recently described as being in San Diego waters. They were William E. Ritter, working on his doctorate from Harvard, and his wife Mary, a physician. Ritter tried his hand at sailing that day, inexpertly, and landed them both in the bay; the crew of a dredge rescued them, even as Ritter was gathering interesting creatures from the dredge dumpings while his bride clung to the sailboat.1

In 1901 Baker sought out Ritter’s colleague, Charles A. Kofoid, who was collecting marine specimens in the San Diego area, and brought Kofoid before the businessmen’s Tuesday Club to tell of a planned biological station. In 1902 Baker spent pleasant collecting days with Harry B. Torrey, one of Ritter’s former students. Baker was in fact off and running before Ritter was even thinking of San Diego as a site for his dream.

Ritter, who in 1903 was a professor of zoology at the University of California at Berkeley, envisioned a seaside laboratory somewhere in California that would rival the world’s most famous one, the Stazione Zoologica at Naples. It would have aquarium displays and lectures for the public, and laboratory space for a permanent staff and visiting scientists. It would undertake a survey of all the coastal marine life of the state of California.2

Ritter had, as far back as 1892, led students and colleagues to a summer of tent-camp collecting at Pacific Grove on the Monterey peninsula. The next year he had transferred his tents to Santa Catalina Island for a particularly enjoyable summer session. During the summer of 1895 some of his colleagues had collected from San Pedro Harbor near Los Angeles, and there Ritter returned with a group of twenty-five students and associates in 1901. He was a practical visionary, whose plans for a permanent station were becoming definite, and had indeed been endorsed in substance by University President Benjamin I. Wheeler. The Los Angeles area seemed a suitable location, and for the summer of 1901 friends of the university and a few Los Angeles businessmen raised $1,400 for equipment and laboratory supplies. That carried the small group through the summer of 1902, but that fall Los Angeles decided to improve and develop its harbor, thus effectively destroying the best collecting grounds.

San Diego booster Fred Baker had already invited the peripatetic biologists to his locale for the summer of 1902. Ritter declined with regret and promised to spend some time in San Diego during his survey of the marine life of the entire coast.

Baker renewed his invitation in January of 1903: “In any project for a permanent establishment in Southern California, the splendid bay at San Diego should not be overlooked…. For such work as you are planning I feel sure San Diego offers the greatest chances of any point on the coast…. A prompt answer will greatly oblige me, as I must get to work at once, and I am a better collector biologically than financially.”3

As a member of the Board of Education, Baker had already obtained a promise of the use of the Roseville school for the summer, and he was sure that he could raise the few hundred dollars that would be needed for seawater lines and equipment. He had also stirred the interest of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, of which he was a member.

Ritter liked the sound of it. “I fully realize that San Diego ought to receive more careful consideration…. I am quite disposed to go there for this coming summer’s work.” He would need at least five hundred dollars for laboratory supplies. Furthermore, wouldn’t the boathouse at the Coronado Hotel be a better location? Owner E.S. Babcock had assured University President Wheeler on a recent visit there that it was available.4

Baker hurried to the Hotel Del Coronado, with the secretary of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, H.P. Wood. Baker really hoped that the biologists would locate at the Roseville school on San Diego Bay, not far from his own house, where he could readily join in the collecting. But he conscientiously recorded the pros and cons of each site, and acknowledged that facilities at the hotel and its offer of a launch were more valuable considerations. Then he asked Ritter to define his summer plans in detail. “We should be glad to help along a Summer School as much as possible,” wrote Baker, “but shall have to ask money from men who are interested in San Diego, but scarcely know what Biology means.”5

With five hundred dollars, said Ritter, his group would do mostly laboratory work, from “shore and pile collecting for our material, with perhaps some surface skimming.” With another five hundred dollars they could operate a launch, and so take water temperatures, make salinity determinations, take soundings, and “make quite a test in a qualitative way of the plankton.”6

Baker set himself a goal of two thousand dollars and, through a committee of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, began his financial collecting. With pledges of about three hundred dollars on hand by March 15, and in company with H.P. Wood, he “drove out to Miramar, the home of a wealthy rancher—secured a promise of five hundred dollars—and advice to call on his sister.”7

Thus did newspaper magnate (not rancher) Edward W. Scripps and Ellen B. Scripps enter the picture. Mr. Scripps, said Baker, “takes no interest in Biology,” but it turned out that he soon would. As for Miss Ellen, she promised “one hundred dollars, and more if necessary.”8 She soon felt that much more was necessary.

Baker lined up one more valuable person, a Roseville neighbor of his, Manuel Cabral. This Portuguese fisherman, once described by Ritter as “unusually intelligent and competent,”9 was interested in operating a schooner with himself at the helm for the six weeks of dredging, trawling, and plankton collecting.

Some days of negotiating by Wood, Baker, and Babcock led to the selection of the boathouse of the Hotel Del Coronado. At Baker’s urging, Ritter listed his needs there, for seawater lines, lighting, and other facilities to make the building a working laboratory. One way or another, inexpensively, the San Diego supporters arranged for those.

In late June Ritter’s group of ten biologists moved into comfortable, rent-free quarters alongside the prestigious Hotel Del Coronado, as one more tourist attraction near the popular resort. All expenses were covered by $1,300 contributed by San Diego businessmen. Manuel Cabral and his helper brought in a wealth of specimens, many of which proved to be new species, an indication that previous biological collecting near San Diego had been very incomplete.

The most successful collecting of the summer, however, was of people: the enthusiasm of Ellen B. Scripps, the partial interest of E.W. Scripps, and the considerable involvement of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. While the biologists were at work one day, a group of their local contributors visited the Coronado boathouse. “My most vivid impression connected with the visit of this group,” wrote Ritter much later, “was of [E.W. Scripps] this unique person cruising around in the laboratory among the workers, to see for himself what was going on. This was probably his first sight of anything like a scientific laboratory. From table to table he went inspecting whate4ver was visible—not neglecting, I have no doubt, the students themselves, males and females.”10

Soon after that, on August 2, Ritter, and the two Scrippses held an informal meeting, duly recorded: “Prof. Ritter read a report. After carefully considering the report it was the unanimous opinion that the plan outlined in the report was thoroughly practical, the financial requirements being looked upon as moderate. It was thereupon determined to form an association to be hereafter named, the object of which would be to promote the location of a Marine Biological Station in the vicinity of San Diego.”11

Ritter returned to his teaching commitments at Berkeley in August, but he heeded the urgent plea from Baker that he come back to San Diego briefly for a formal meeting of their supporters: “You must be on hand if you have to close down the University for a few days.”12 Ritter and Baker had concluded that the most keenly interested contributor would be Ellen B. Scripps. “I do not believe, however,” noted Ritter, “the idea of making the whole enterprise hers, so that it might be named after her, has entered seriously into her thoughts as yet”—which it apparently had into his.

As to E.W. Scripps, wrote Ritter, “I think our policy must be to go ahead at all times and mark out our line of action, then tell him afterward, in important matters, what we propose to do. When he approves, he will, I suspect voluntarily give us a hand.”13 Those were shrewd assessments by Ritter, and they directed his course of action in dealings with the Scripps family for many years.

During that summer of 1903 E.W. Scripps found the person who he felt should undertake the business side of the new venture: Homer H. Peters, a Detroit businessman recently moved to San Diego. On September 16, Baker, with two others of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce who knew Peters, introduced him to Scripps. The four drove to Miramar, where the successful newspaper publisher had built a sprawling house during the 1890s on several hundred acres of a remote mesa fifteen miles north of San Diego. Peters and Scripps found Detroit acquaintances in common and quickly “affiliated like two old college mates.” Baker wrote of the day’s visit in a burst of enthusiasm to Ritter:


[After lunch and some general conversation, Wood had brought up the discussion of the planned biological station.] “Mr. Scripps became the most enthusiastic advocate of the crowd. He said to Mr. Peters, ‘Now you must put yourself at the head of this thing and make it go. Some of us are willing to help, but we want a man of affairs, one who has made a notorious success in his own business to assure us that no mistakes will be made, and that it will succeed. Dr. Baker and a lot of professional men may take hold of this and it will go very slowly indeed, or it won’t go at all, but if business men of ample means take hold it will succeed. You and I know that the easiest thing in the world is to raise money, but the right men must go after it. Really we don’t have to put up much ourselves—Why! if we wanted to, we could go into it and make a dividend ourselves. You have been in business all your life, and broke down. Now you are going to put $200,000, into a big hotel just because you can’t be idle. Now instead of business—make a variety. Take up this, and put a part of your surplus energy into it. You will find it more fun than anything else you can do. Be the head of it, and take the credit for making it a success. I don’t like to use so vulgar a word as advertisement, but it is the biggest opportunity to become known that ever came to you. Marshall Field got more advertisement out of the Field Museum than out of any equal money he ever spent. This thing if it is worked right will give you an international reputation for we are going to make this the biggest thing of its kind in the world.


” ‘Now, I can’t take the lead in this thing [continued E.W. Scripps]. Mr. Marston has gone in to build a great park. We don’t expect him to spend a great deal of his own money, but we know that he will furnish the business ability, and we feel safe to put our money into it. I am into country roads—or I might go into this, but I can’t, so you have got to do it. We will make you chairman of the Finance Committee, and you have got to make it go. Then when you find out what has to be done you can come out here and hold me up—and we will get the money. It won’t take much to begin on. I don’t believe they ought to spend over $2000 in the next six months, nor more than $15000 in the next two years. If I had a hundred thousand dollars in hand I wanted to give them, I would not give them over two thousand. I could tell by the way the spent that, how they deserved the other $98000….


” ‘I wouldn’t try for a fine building. Any shack will do if there is room enough, but let’s have work. Then, when we have learned by a few mistakes, we can spread out and make a big thing. This will throw you in with College people, and they are fine people to meet, and you will get more satisfaction out of it than from anything you can do.’


“Mr. Peters protested—didn’t know anything about Biology, etc., but finally said he would take any place given him, and do his share, and would be one of five to insure the success of the thing….


“Mr. Scripps said, ‘We aren’t too old to learn a good deal about Biology, and I tell you it is mighty interesting. Of course we couldn’t begin at the bottom and go into details, but we could get a broad insight into the work.’ just before Mr. Peters left us he said, ‘Well! I suppose I must begin reading on Biology.’ “14

Two busy weeks followed. A meeting at the office of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce was set for September 24, to which twenty-seven leading citizens of San Diego were invited. Eleven of them came, to hear pro-tem president William E. Ritter describe his dream. They selected a membership committee which in two days persuaded thirty-four people to meet again at the Chamber of Commerce office. Moving briskly on September 26, 1903, those civic leaders formed a marine biological association “for the purpose of securing the foundation and endowment of a scientific institution to be known as the San Diego Marine Biological Institution.”15 They then adopted the proposed by-laws, and they elected officers: Homer H. Peters, president; Ellen Scripps, vice-president; Julius Wangenheim, treasurer; Fred Baker, secretary; W.E. Ritter, scientific director; E. W. Scripps and James MacMullen, additional members of the board of trustees. The deed was done, and the organization was soon incorporated.

Many years of effort followed the creation of this infant in 1903. Homer Peters soon moved away from San Diego, leaving the association’s presidency (as E.W. Scripps had feared) in the hands of the enthusiastic Fred Baker. Ellen B. Scripps in 1906 saved the day by generously promising fifty thousand dollars to put the organization on a secure footing. Charles A. Kofoid went off to Europe to visit all the marine stations there, for ideas to incorporate into California’s own. Manuel Cabral continued as an oceanic collector for several years, inside and outside the bay. La Jollans were drawn into the project in 1905 when the association selected a site in the city park at La Jolla Cove. There for five years the scientists occupied a “little green laboratory,” built through local subscription. But E.W. Scripps decided in 1907 that he preferred a generous piece of land at the far end of “Long Beach” (now La Jolla Shores beach), and he ensured the purchase of those 170 acres from the city. Julius Wangenheim and Fred Baker worked closely with Ritter on plans for a permanent station. The first building, George H. Scripps Memorial Laboratory (named for the deceased older brother of E.W. and Ellen B. Scripps), was designed by San Diego architect Irving Gill and erected in 1909-10; it is now San Diego Historical Site number 119. In 1912 the University of California formally accepted the marine station but renamed it Scripps Institution for Biological Research, in recognition of the contributions of Ellen B. and Edward W. Scripps.

In the association’s early years, E.W. Scripps had his misgivings about it, chiefly because he was convinced that scientists could not be businesslike. “I have been so schooled and trained in business that I have acquired the vulgar habits of my vulgar class,” he once wrote to Ritter, “and, as a consequence, I am more provoked by any sort of a business mistake, bookkeeping or otherwise, than I could possibly be exhilarated by the feeling that I had helped to discover ten thousand new kinds of bugs.”16 He urged an organization such “as will enable the Society to do business in a strictly business fashion, instead of attempting to conduct its affairs by the parliamentary rules of a tea party.”17 Scripps himself rebelled at handling the association’s minor details, and twice withdrew from the board of trustees. He feared that Ritter’s own scientific drive would be lost to handling pettifogging trivia. But he regularly wrote to city, state, and university officials, urging the success of what to him was a grand and worthy idea. To James MacMullen, editor of the San Diego Union, he observed: “The establishment of this institute at San Diego would perhaps add more toward making the City known and noted than could any other institution representing ten or twenty times the amount of actual capital to be invested.”18

And Scripps gradually found the organization succeeding, in no small measure because his sister generously wrote another check whenever it had a need. These were not trivia: twelve cottages for staff and visitors, a house for the director, a library building, the thousand-foot-long pier, an 85-foot ship Alexander Agassiz—each provided by Ellen B. Scripps, cordially and kindly, from 1912 to 1916. She also established a generous endowment.

“I have never urged, in fact, have never asked either Mr. Scripps or Miss Scripps for money,” Ritter once said. “All I have ever done has been to point out possibilities of development and research and the meaning of results with the hope that the presentation would appeal to their wisdom strongly enough to reach their inclination to give.”19 His approach worked.

Once the institution was running smoothly, E.W. Scripps became a great admirer of W.E. Ritter. That scientist, who established a secure place for himself as a conscientious field man and philosophical biologist, also proved to be a good man for day-to-day details. The newspaper man, founder of the Scripps-Howard chain and other combines, was somewhat of a recluse, called himself a “damned old crank,” and expected people who worked for him to run to his bidding. On his own whim, however, he would drive from Miramar to the biological station from time to time, unannounced, stump up to Ritter’s second-floor office, and boom into conversation, dribbling cigar ashes down his broad chest. Scripps never did begin at the bottom in biology, but he did indeed get a broad insight. He took keen interest in some of the station’s projects—such as Francis B. Sumner’s studies of generations of deermice from varied environments, and those Scripps financed directly from annual donations. Human nature especially fascinated him. “Tell me, Ritter, what is this damned human animal anyway?” he would say.20 And the two men, so dissimilar except for what Ritter later recognized as their common bond of childhood on midwestern farms, would talk for hours.

After Ritter’s retirement in 1923 the biological station turned to the entire Pacific Ocean, became the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and continued to grow, slowly until the late 1940s, then in a burst.

It has fulfilled E.W. Scripps’ promise of being “the biggest thing of its kind in the world.” Scripps Institution of Oceanography spreads over many of its 170 acres, holds a high reputation internationally for its research in all oceans, and remembers that its stature helped create the present day campus of the University of California, San Diego.



1. Tracey I. Storer, “William Emerson Ritter,” (unpublished manuscript, Scripps Archives, 1944), p. 2.

2. The early history of Scripps Institution has been well told by Helen Raitt and Beatrice Moulton in Scripps Institution of Oceanography. First fifty Years (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1967). This present article is derived from that and from additional material in the archives of Scripps Institution, La Jolla, California. All letters cited here are in those archives. A guide to the papers of William E. Ritter in the Scripps archives, by E.N. Shor, is also available there.

3. Letter from Baker to Ritter, January 26, 1903.

4. Letter from Ritter to Baker, February 2, 1903.

5. Letter from Baker to Ritter, February 6, 1903.

6. Letter from Ritter to Baker, February 13, 1903.

7. Letter from Baker to Ritter, March 15, 1903.

8. Letter from Baker to Ritter, March 20, 1903.

9. W.E. Ritter, “Preliminary Report on the Marine Biological Survey Work Carried on by the Zoological Department of the University of California at San Diego,” Science, 28 (1903), p. 361.

10. William E. Ritter, “Philosophy of E.W. Scripps,” (unpublished manuscript, Scripps Archives, 1944), pp. 13-14.

11. Minutes of Meetings of the San Diego Marine Biological Association. . ., entry for August 2, 1903.

12. Letter from Baker to Ritter, September 17, 1903.

13. Letter from Ritter to Baker, August 23, 1903.

14. Letter from Baker to Ritter, September 17, 1903.

15. Minutes of Meetings of the San Diego Marine Biological Association. . ., entry for September 26, 1903.

16. Letter from Scripps to Ritter, February 9, 1905.

17. Letter from Scripps to Ritter, March 30, 1904.

18. Letter from Scripps to MacMullen, November 23, 1904.

19. Letter from Ritter to C.A. Kofoid, December 11, 1915.

20. Tracy I. Storer, “William Emerson Ritter,” (unpublished manuscript, Scripps Archives, 1944) p. 5.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS on pages 163 and 164 (bottom) are from the San Diego Historical Society’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection. All others are courtesy of Scripps Archives.

Preparation of this article was supported in part by a contribution in memory of Margaret Scripps Hawkins which is here gratefully acknowledged.