The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 2003, Volume 49, Number 2
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Images from the Article

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American city-builders and boosters all shared a common end goal as they pursued their urban fortunes: “growth.” The key ingredients of successful growth were usually the same, although depending upon where and when they planted their new cities, urbanizers often sought those ingredients in their own unique measures and combinations. In-migration and real estate development were of course essential everywhere, but particular programs for commercial and industrial development generally varied from place to place, especially where naturally occurring conditions such as geographic isolation or a limited supply of water emerged as factors. Competition from neighboring cities frequently complicated the growth processes. Urban historian Carl Abbot offered a durable definition of boosterism a generation ago, calling it an “entire process by which business and civic leaders assessed the situation they faced, tried to define a coherent economic program to be carried out by public and private action, and publicized that assessment and program to local and national audiences.”1

In cities across the country, boosters could always be counted upon to “boom” the virtues of their town in terms of some vast potential to strike it rich in industry or business—especially the real estate business. Such was certainly the case in San Diego from 1850 on, as the stories of Edward Heath Davis, Alonzo Horton, and the generations of civic leaders who exerted their influence as directors of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce throughout much of the twentieth century attest.2 To explain the relationship between boosterism and urban growth in such starkly economic terms, however, might obscure the extraordinary creativity that sometimes characterized boosters’ efforts, and this too is a crucial element of San Diego’s own urban history. A simple definition of creativity—imaginative thought, inventiveness, and artistic ability, as the Oxford American Dictionary of Current English posits—is itself insufficient to describe the visionary forces that worked hand-in-hand with the boosters and boomers in San Diego circa 1900 and thereafter. A more suitable and complete definition must include active, indeed, passionate pursuit of ideas; only in this light can we understand the role creativity played in the emergence of modern San Diego.

San Diegans struggled at the turn of the twentieth century to rid themselves of the doldrums induced by more than a decade of nearly zero growth in the region. Most of the ideas emanating from the Chamber of Commerce represented standard booster fare, tailored as they had to be to the unique exigencies of the region. Prominent among these were establishment of a transcontinental rail link, improvement of the harbor, and a nationwide promotional campaign to attract industrialists, agriculturalists and retirees. One of the organization’s more fanciful schemes entailed planting mulberry trees around the city and importing silkworms and skilled workers from Asia to start up silk-making enterprise. During this same period the Chamber of Commerce directorate began to develop a highly original long-term strategy to induce the U.S. Navy to install a number of bases around the bay, a program that began to pay huge dividends after 1915. No matter how grand or small a scheme and its ultimate economic payoff might be, San Diego boosters hoped that success would put their city “on the map”—an entirely realistic goal, given the fact that some maps of California failed to include the southernmost city!3

Beginning in 1902, a small coterie of avid “local patriots” turned one seemingly small item from the mainstream boosters’ agenda into their own and ran with it to glory, establishing a crucial aspect of San Diego’s future success. Their idea was to induce the University of California to establish a marine biology laboratory somewhere on the seacoast or bayshore around the city. The kernel of the group formed around Dr. Fred Baker, a physician and serious amateur malacologist. Baker, whose wife Charlotte was also a physician, had lived in San Diego since 1888, and both were “very active in civic affairs.”4 Baker enlisted his shell-collecting companion, H.P. Wood, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, as well as another prominent civic-minded physician, Fred R. Burnham. These three formed the core of the Chamber’s “biological committee,” and as such, they set out in 1902 to determine what they would need to accomplish in order to fulfill their mission.

Why would the Chamber of Commerce take such a project under its wing? When compared to the opening of a rail line or deepening the harbor—even to the start-up of a silk industry—a small marine lab would hardly seem to promise a suitable return, whether in terms of dollars earned or urban growth. Part of the answer to this question lay in the character of Dr. Fred Baker. Beyond his well known professional skills as a physician and surgeon and his equally widespread reputation for civic engagement, “Dr. Fred” served for many years on San Diego’s board of education, city council, and the board of the state normal school that later became San Diego State University. He was a charter member of the San Diego Yacht Club, where, according to his obituary, he “taught hundreds of boys all he knew about boats.” All his life he nurtured a deep passion for the natural sciences that similarly extended far into the public sphere. During his years in San Diego, Baker was elected a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, an honorary life member of the Pacific Geographical Society (in recognition of his extensive travels around the Pacific Basin and the rest of the world), a life member (“for services rendered”) of the San Diego Society of Natural History, a charter and life member of the San Diego Museum Association, and he belonged to the American Malacological Society. He was also one of the five founders of the San Diego Zoological Society.5 He harbored the fundamental Progressive Era belief that advancements in education, scientific knowledge and technology had much to offer toward the improvement of the human condition. Moreover, Baker seemed clearly to subscribe to the popular Progressive ideal of individual public service for the improvement of society, local or otherwise. Thus, if San Diego’s natural capital might be harnessed to such ends, the city as well as mankind would surely benefit. Baker must have been a most persuasive advocate of whatever causes he chose to promote!

Baker had gained the acquaintance of the University of California zoologist, William E. Ritter at some point in previous years—perhaps when the Ritters had honeymooned at the Hotel Del Coronado in 1890. On a shoestring budget Ritter had created summer field laboratories to study marine biology (at Pacific Grove in 1892, at Catalina Island in 1893, at Terminal Island near San Pedro on several occasions between 1895 and 1902). Baker and Ritter shared at least two remarkable traits: a bottomless intellectual curiosity, and a willingness to travel to the ends of the earth in search of new scientific knowledge. Although no scientist had yet investigated the marine life in the San Diego vicinity, Baker felt the waters off San Diego offered a rich field for scientific study. He must have been pleased even so to learn in July 1901, that some of Ritter’s group had sailed from San Pedro to San Diego in order to collect specimens.6

Now the San Diego physician managed to meet Professor Ritter’s assistant Charles Kofoid when the summer group’s dredging expedition landed at San Diego. Accompanying Kofoid on a few such dredging trips thereafter, Baker tried to attract Ritter’s research interests in the direction of San Diego; at the same time he planted a seed in the minds of influential San Diegans by inviting Kofoid to speak to the prestigious Tuesday Club. At this point, the directors of the Chamber of Commerce formed their committee to develop the idea that Ritter and company establish their summer program permanently somewhere on San Diego’s shore.7 The committee would need to find a building to house the laboratory as well as raise the funds needed for equipment and operating expenses; they also had to obtain the blessing of the president of the university, Benjamin Ide Wheeler. Baker and Wheeler secured the cooperation of Elisha Babcock, erstwhile developer and now manager of John D. Spreckels’ Coronado Beach Company, and so the Hotel Del Coronado donated the use of its boathouse on Glorietta Bay as the site of the lab for the summer of 1903.

Although Professor Ritter estimated the basic expenses of the six-week program to be in the neighborhood of a thousand dollars, Dr. Baker intended to double that figure. During the first months of 1903, he obtained three hundred dollars in pledges, and then with his friend Wood in tow, in mid-March sought the assistance of newspaper magnate and notable eccentric E.W. Scripps, who offered a princely five hundred dollars in support of the enterprise. Baker perceived at the time that Scripps had no special interest in biology, but he apparently found Ritter’s enthusiasm compelling, and enjoyed the prospect of helping to found a scientific enterprise. Oddly enough, in the years to come, Scripps would demonstrate a marked anti-boosterism in contrast to the other business-minded individuals who joined in supporting Baker and Ritter’s idea. (Ritter also noted a few months later that Mr. Scripps did not “think much of colleges” either, although he could not say why.) The newspaperman’s older sister, Ellen Browning Scripps, pledged one hundred dollars of her own money. At the end of that month, John D. Spreckels’s newspaper, the San Diego Union—rival to Scripps’s Sun—reported that the Chamber of Commerce’s biological committee neared completion of its fundraising goal (they had collected between $1,250.00 and $1,400.00). The Union noted as well the distinctly regional focus of the prospective lab’s mission—”to find out as much as possible…about the marine life, particularly the floating and swimming life of San Diego bay and the adjacent sea.”8

Activities at the temporary lab commenced before the end of June. According to the Union, between the faculty and students, the venture would be the “most important school of the summer that the university will undertake.”9 By all accounts, the scientific aspect of the venture succeeded admirably, establishing as fact that San Diego’s waters were full of life and worthy of study. That, however, was not necessarily enough to assure that the University of California would endorse the endeavor in succeeding years, or that the San Diego business community would continue to offer its financial support. But something wonderful occurred one day when E.W. Scripps made a visit to the lab and found himself captivated by the enterprise, an event that proved to be pivotal and would have a profound impact on San Diego’s future.

According to Professor Ritter’s diary for that day, Scripps showed a “lively, pushing, obviously sincere interest in the details of our work.” He showed “a sort of child-like eagerness” to examine each of the workers’ activities. Ritter marveled that though his guest was “the central figure in a great business, [he] could yet drive twenty miles to visit a puny little scientific establishment…and show an interest….”10 Ritter’s own enthusiasm for San Diego as a permanent location for the laboratory grew apace. In a memoir he wrote of the early experience a few years later, he characterized San Diego as a “combined nurse and mother” to the summer school at Coronado, “an infant [who] began to walk at first by pushing a chair, then afterwards alone.”11 From these modest beginnings, a multivalent relationship now began to grow between the scientist, the booster community, and the Scripps family, all of which suggested a civic culture capable of nurturing great creativity.

With the summer’s work finished, Fred Baker sought to establish a firm foundation for the laboratory’s future. To E.W. Scripps he introduced Homer Peters, a man he thought well suited to lead a standing committee of citizens to raise funds and otherwise oversee the business side of a permanent institution for the study of marine biology at San Diego. Baker then induced a group of the town’s top businesspeople and intellectuals to meet at the Chamber of Commerce to form the association he had in mind. At this meeting Ritter presented a report that expressed his vision of the venture’s future. Knowing that continued financial support of the city’s businessmen remained crucial to his lab’s existence, he nevertheless offered what he acknowledged to be a “rather radical” mission statement. With regard to science, Ritter harbored no doubt that the waters of the San Diego region warranted “a comprehensive investigation of the marine life and the physical conditions under which it exists….” Moreover, this undertaking should be “systematic, continuous, and long continued.” It would require a highly trained staff whose members should earn suitable salaries such that they could carry out the regular work of the institution, as opposed to having researchers pursuing individual projects of their own, paying for the privilege of working there. It should include an “aquarium-museum,” and it might maintain a summer school function. Above all, the whole program should be organized on scientifically as well as financially sound principles.12

When the Marine Biological Association incorporated at the end of September, Baker was its secretary and Ritter the scientific director. E.W. Scripps agreed to serve as a trustee, and his sister Ellen took the position of vice president. Of all the factors that coalesced over the next few years to make the infant organization thrive and grow to adulthood, relations between these four people proved essential—Baker as catalyst, Ritter as visionary scientist, Ellen Browning Scripps as primary philanthropist, and E.W. Scripps in the complex role of patriarch, investor, and business consultant.

In the material realm, the fact that her brother convinced her to join him to underwrite the institution was especially important. According to Deborah Day, Ellen’s interest in marine biology preceded that of E.W.’s. While E.W. had made his own fortune in the newspaper business, Ellen had recently inherited a large sum of money from her brother George. As the two of them discussed the uses to which Ellen might put her legacy, she, according to Ritter, first saw the possibility of offering major support to the marine biology lab. But because E.W. Scripps wanted the family connection with the lab to outlive him, he felt it necessary to persuade his sister to involve herself directly in Ritter’s project. The two of them provided most of the lab’s funding until 1912, when the University of California took it over; thereafter, “until their deaths, E.W. Scripps and Ellen Browning Scripps matched the state support for the institution. E.W. Scripps personally donated over forty thousand dollars….Ellen Browning Scripps created an endowment and donated over four hundred thousand dollars to the institution.” After the lab moved to La Jolla in 1905, and onto its own property at La Jolla Shores two years later, Ms. Scripps “built the roads and the pier, designed the campus, built the first laboratory and the library.” And their heirs continued the tradition long after E.W. and Ellen Browning Scripps had passed from the scene.13

The confluence of personalities and the intellectual currents that flowed from it are every bit as remarkable. The principle figures, Fred Baker, William Ritter and the eccentric E.W. Scripps in particular, all shared a burning passion for knowledge for its own sake, which came to serve as a powerful bond between them. But their quest for knowledge rested on a solid foundation of idealistic humanism. As Mary Ritter, the scientist’s wife, said in her memoir with regard to her husband and E.W. Scripps, “[B]oth were inquirers, both were earnestly seeking the truth, and both were believers that the truth, science, would set men free, if men could only come to know the truth.”14 In later years, the two spent countless hours heatedly arguing all conceivable subjects under the sun. Others within their orbit seemed to possess similar, if calmer, feelings; the college-educated Ellen B. Scripps, for example, read numerous scientific books and articles and enjoyed collecting specimens of sea life.15 Clearly, science, education, the advancement of the human condition and “the life of the mind” mattered to these San Diegans despite all the pressing—if painfully mundane—burdens that had beset the region for decades.

What did these events and the people behind them mean to the little city of San Diego, whose population was just rising above the 20,000-mark for the first time since the late 1880s? To each of the supporters present at the birth of the marine biological station it meant something different. From Professor Ritter’s perspective, the new type of institution he intended to build promised nothing less than the opportunity to place San Diego at the center of a vast movement of “scientific regeneration from the ground up.”16 From the halls of the Chamber of Commerce, advocates of urban growth saw the laboratory as one in a long line of “legitimate enterprises for the city’s welfare” that their organization had “cradled, nurtured, and started to life….”17 If the great state university ever adopted the fledgling laboratory as its own, what a fine step in the direction of legitimacy that would be. And what prodigious growth might follow! Having been drawn in at first by her younger brother’s interest, Miss Ellen Scripps seemed to find her own personal and intellectual fulfillment through her involvement, as well as a suitable outlet for her philanthropic interests that would last for the rest of her life.

E.W. Scripps’s response was more complex. As Deborah Day has pointed out, his business instincts cast him as a visionary administrator imbued with utopian goals, who insisted that the station be run on a sound, businesslike basis. But even more indelibly he was an investor, “confident in the expectation that the investment would yield a world class research institution for the benefit of mankind.” Unlike the “boomers” among his fellow Association members, however, Scripps made it plain that the high aims of this particular enterprise “should not be degraded by its ever being regarded as a local show place—as something to advertise the town with.” He had no desire whatsoever “to sacrifice these ends in order to boom San Diego real estate.”18

After a second season at Coronado in 1904, Professor Ritter proposed an ambitious plan for the following summer—an intensive biological survey of all the waters “adjacent to the Coast of Southern California,” for which the Coronado boathouse would be too small. Ritter had in the meantime arranged to lease a corner of the park at La Jolla, and the La Jolla Improvement Society put up a building know as “the little green laboratory at the Cove” at a cost of $992 that housed the research and tiny public aquarium for the next seven years. With the move to La Jolla, Ellen Scripps “became committed to establishing the institution on an unquestionably permanent basis by giving ever larger sums of money to the undertaking. But as La Jolla began to grow—contrary to E.W.’s stated desire—the park location began to prove less suitable, so the Marine Biological Association sought out a location for a permanent and much larger campus.19

In the meantime, an offer to the Association from the South Coast Land Company to provide a substantial property at Del Mar, plus many of the most important improvements to sustain the laboratory, proved both the boosters’ and the anti-booster’s points: as Raitt and Moulton put it, “These land speculators were convinced that the respectable university affiliated institution, with its aquarium-museum, would attract a particularly desirable group of people to Del Mar, and they were willing to make generous concessions to prove it.” In fact, the real estate issues were not settled until E.W. Scripps craftily purchased a 170-acre tract of city pueblo land at La Jolla Shores by way of a rigged auction in 1907 for a mere one thousand dollars. Ellen Scripps’s continued benefactions enabled the construction of the physical plant as well as a new research vessel, the Alexander Agassiz.

Within a few years, and after some rather testy exchanges between E.W. Scripps and the president of the University of California, the Marine Biological Association deeded the property to the university, and the station became a “department of the university, ‘coordinate with its already existing departments,’” to be named the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Professor Ritter remained its director until 1923. Even after the deaths of E.W. (1926) and Ellen (1932) the Scripps family continued to offer major financial support, and the institution grew in both renown and importance. During World War II, its scientists made significant contributions to the Allied victory, and after the war, thanks in large part to the vision and Herculean efforts of its postwar director, Roger Revelle, it became the foundation for a new full-service campus of the University of California. And today, one hundred years after its almost unheralded birth, it stands as one of the outstanding leaders in the world in the marine, biological and atmospheric sciences, which along with the main campus of UCSD has fostered tremendous regional growth in research and development, biotechnology, and other high-tech industries.

What about the tiny, struggling San Diego of a century ago made these momentous events possible? First, there was the place—a largely unspoiled, isolated town on the edge of an ocean as yet unexplored by scientists. That there was a progressive state university, with faculty members and administrators willing to branch out far from home in order to pursue trailblazing research is also crucial. In the end, however, we must look to the San Diegans themselves as the key players. The inquiring minds of Fred Baker and his friends and associates in San Diego’s public realms of business, education and leisure pursuits played major roles. And so did the philosophical ruminations and business acumen of the enigmatic E.W. Scripps. His sister Ellen’s intellectual interests, great fortune and philanthropy were also key ingredients. Standing as the bridge linking these elements was William Ritter, an academic whose thirst for knowledge for its own sake—to be applied of course, for the betterment of humankind—inspired them all to act in concert to create a new institution as their lasting legacy.




1. Carl Abbott, Boosters and Businessmen: Popular Economic Thought and Urban Growth in the Antebellum Middle West. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981, 4). The rich literatures of American urban history, sociology and political science include abundant discussion of these issues. See for example, Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience. (New York: Random House, 1965); Raymond Mohl, The Making of Urban America. (Ed. Raymond A. Mohl. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1988); Oscar Handlin and John Burchard, eds. The Historian and the City. (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press and Harvard University Press, 1963); Erik Monnkonnen, America Becomes Urban: The Development of U.S. Cities and Towns, 1780-1980. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Roger Lotchin, Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Jon Teaford, The Twentieth-Century American City,Second Edition. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); John Logan and Harvey Molotch, Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); and Amy Bridges, A City in the Republic: Antebellum New York and the Origins of Machine Politics. (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

2. Lotchin, Fortress California, Abraham Shragge, Boosters and Bluejackets: The Civic Culture of Militarism in San Diego, California, 1900-1945. (Ph.D. diss., University of California, San Diego, 1988); Elizabeth MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego, and of its Founder, Alonzo E. Horton. (San Diego: Pioneer Printers, 1969).

3. See Glenn Dumke, The Boom of the Eighties in Southern California. (San Marino: Huntington Library,1944); Lotchin, Fortress California; Shragge, Boosters and Bluejackets; McPhail, The Story of New San Diego; Bruce Linder, San Diego’s Navy: an Illustrated History. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001); and Mike Davis Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists Never See. (New York: New Press, Distributed by Norton, 2003). In 1905, U.S. Weather Service meteorologist, Ford A. Carpenter reported that “San Diego [was] not even on Baedeker’s Map of Southern California….” See F.A. Carpenter to San Diego Chamber of Commerce, February 10, 1905. Minutes of the Weekly Meeting of the Board of Directors, San Diego Chamber of Commerce 1905, p. 509.

4. Helen Raitt and Beatrice Moulton, Scripps Institution of Oceanography: The First Fifty Years (The Ward Ritchie Press, 1967), 13.

5. S. Gabriel, Who’s Who in San Diego (1936), 71-2. Baker’s unpaid civic career was no less remarkable: “Member San Diego City Council, six years, president one year; San Diego Board of Education, seven years, president three years; San Diego Public Library Trustee, one year; San Diego State Normal School (forerunner of SDSU). President, Southern California Medical Society, one year.”

6. “Along the Water Front: Students Seeking Marine Life.” San Diego Union, 18 July 1901, 7:1.

7. Raitt and Moulton, 9.

8. Ritter Bio File, Diary Excerpts, p.5, July 27, 1903, SIO Archives. Ritter to Baker, February 13, 1903; Baker to Ritter, March 15, 1903; San Diego Union, 29 March 1903, “Biological Laboratories, 5:2. See also, Deborah Day, “Scripps Benefactions: The Role of the Scripps Family in the Founding of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography,”, n.d.

9. “Professors and Students of Biological School Will Leave Berkeley on Monday.” San Diego Union, 13 June 1903, 6:3,4.

10. Ritter Bio File, Diary Excerpts, p. 5, July 28, 1903. SIO Archives.

11. Ritter, “The Marine Biological Station of San Diego,” (Frye and Smith, 1910), 5.

12. “Report of Professor Ritter to the Marine Biological Association of San Diego,” 1903. Scripps Family Papers, 1903-1990, box 1, 92-38, SIO Archives. Emphasis original.

13. Day, “Scripps Benefactions,” op. cit.

14. Mary Ritter, More than Gold in California (Berkeley: The Professional Press, 1933), 306. Mrs. Ritter is one among several who offered a bleak psychological profile of E.W. Scripps while pointing out that William Ritter may have been his only close friend. See also, Oliver Knight, ed., I Protest: Selected Disquisitions of E.W. Scripps (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), 22, 28, 47, and 84.

15. Day, ibid. Julius Wangenheim also deserves mention in this connection. A graduate of the University of California, Wangenheim was a founder and first treasurer of the Marine Biological Association. Long a prominent figure in the Chamber of Commerce as well as in the cultural life of the city, he had a lifelong interest in higher education, serving on the San Diego committee of UC Extension in the 1920s, and also as a regent of the university.

16. Ritter to Ellen Scripps, August 13, 1908. Scripps Family Papers, 1903-1990, box 1, 92-38, SIO Archives.

17. San Diego Chamber of Commerce, Annual Report of the President, 1904, p. 1.

18. Scripps to Wheeler, May 8, 1906; and E.W. Scripps to Baker, n.d. 1906, Scripps Family Papers, 1903-1990, box 1, file 92-38, both in SIO Archives.

19. Raitt and Moulton, 30-41. The particular problem at the park was the construction of new housing nearby with a sewer line that emptied into the cove.

Abraham J. Shragge, II: Born and raised in San Francisco; a resident of San Diego since 1982; B.A. in history UC-Davis; M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern U.S. History, UCSD, 1998. Spent fourteen years in business (retail scuba diving and commercial real estate) before entering the graduate program at UCSD. Presently a Coordinator of Public Programs with the UCSD Civic Collaborative, engaged in projects including the compilation and publication of a Directory of San Diego County Historical Resources, creation of a San Diego Regional Studies Network, a San Diego Ex­Prisoners of War Oral History program, and teaching at UCSD. Dr. Shragge also serves as the curator of the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center in San Diego’s Balboa Park in addition to his other activities.

Kay Dietze: A San Diego resident since 1980, Ms. Dietze transferred to UCSD in 2001 and is anticipating graduating with a B.A. in Urban Studies and Planning in March 2004. She is a participant in the McNair Scholarship program and has conduct­ed a variety of research projects. Ms. Dietze lives in Cardiff, California.