NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Long before he ever heard of Bethel College, Jon Piper knew about Katherine Esau.
Decades later, the author of one of his key plant biology textbooks would be responsible for Piper’s receiving an endowed chair at Bethel, though Esau never set foot on its campus.
Katherine Esau was born in Ukraine in 1898, a descendent of the Mennonites that Catherine the Great had invited into Russia a century earlier. The Esau family fled Russia for Germany in December 1918, as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. “Katherine’s accounts of this journey and its impact on the family are heart-wrenching,” says Sondra Bandy Koontz, Bethel College vice president of advancement.
Before the family’s forced departure, Esau had completed her first year of study at the Women’s Agricultural College in Moscow. Upon arriving in Germany, she entered and later graduated from the Agricultural College of Berlin.
As conditions in Germany deteriorated during the early 1920s, the Esau family once again took flight, this time to the United States and the large Mennonite community in Reedley, Calif., where Katherine worked as a housecleaner and childcare worker while perfecting her English.
As her language skills improved, she took jobs with the Sloan Seed Company and then the Spreckles Sugar Company, where she bred strains of sugar beets for virus resistance. After a University of California professor visited the sugar company and saw Esau’s projects, her education was assured.
Esau arrived at the University of California-Davis in 1927 as a graduate student in the College of Agriculture. Still researching sugar beet viruses, she earned her Ph.D. at UC-Berkeley in 1932. She remained on the UC-Davis campus as an instructor, later becoming professor of botany. In 1963, close to her official retirement date, she headed to UC-Santa Barbara, where she remained actively engaged in research for 24 more years. Today the electron microscope facility at UC-Santa Barbara bears her name.
During her long career, Esau studied both diseased and healthy plants including celery, tobacco, carrots and pears. In 1953, she published her classic textbook, Plant Anatomy – known worldwide even today as “the bible of plant anatomy.” Five more books followed, extending her influence into classrooms all over the world. Her mastery of English, French, Spanish, Russian, German and Portuguese allowed her to be thoroughly involved as her books were published in various languages.
“Katherine Esau was widely praised as a superb teacher,” Koontz says. “She had a gift for story telling, infectious enthusiasm for her subject matter and a delightful sense of humor. On one occasion, when she began a lecture with ‘Once upon a time,’ a graduate student quipped, ‘Aha, another of Esau’s fables!’ She was noted for precision and rigor and instilled those standards in her students. Into her 90s, she answered all correspondence from former students although she once said to a friend, ‘Don’t they know I’m retired?’”
Esau served as president of the Botanical Society of America and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the Swedish Royal Academy of Science. She held honorary degrees from Mills College and the University of California. In 1989, she received the National Medal of Science. The citation accompanying this award noted her impact on plant biologists worldwide, her pioneering research, her superlative performance as an educator, the encouragement she gave to a legion of young aspiring plant biologists and the special role model she became for women in science.
When Esau died in 1997, she had never been to Bethel College, yet she gave it the largest gift the college had ever received. Her first contact with Bethel College came in 1982 when her brother, Paul Esau, introduced her to then-Bethel president Harold Schultz. Larry Voth, Koontz’s predecessor in the advancement office, maintained the relationship until Katherine Esau’s death at age 99.
“Katherine Esau valued our insistence on academic excellence,” says Koontz. “She saw that Bethel challenges students – that students here are encouraged to question and to be curious and creative. She wanted her legacy to support Mennonite institutions – her non-Mennonite colleagues commented on how close she remained to her Mennonite roots – and she very carefully selected which Mennonite institutions would benefit from her estate. Katherine Esau believed that Bethel’s values matched her values.”
On Nov. 14, 2008, Katherine Esau’s gift to Bethel of more than $2.5 million took tangible shape in the form of a Distinguished Chair in Plant Sciences named for her, which Bethel President Barry C. Bartel conferred on Jon Piper, professor of biology, that day.
“When I was taking Plant Anatomy in graduate school [at Washington State University] 28 years ago from Joe Hindman, of course I could never have known that there would one day be a connection between me and the author of our textbook, Dr. Katherine Esau,” Piper says. “I still have Dr. Esau’s book within easy reach on my office shelf, and I still refer to it from time to time. Her type of highly detailed, painstakingly crafted pen-and-ink drawings are very rarely seen in current textbooks, and I have made several transparencies of them to illustrate important structures and concepts in my botany classes.”
After giving a biographical sketch of Katherine Esau during the distinguished chair ceremony, Koontz said, “Jon, you are the beneficiary of a woman whose name is writ large in your chosen field of plant biology. I know you will continue Katherine’s work, instilling her values of excellence and precision, creativity and curiosity, in ways that enrich the lives of Bethel’s students."
“I’m sorry I never got to meet Dr. Esau – she passed away two months before I joined the faculty at Bethel in 1997,” Piper says. “So her honoring the college with this bequest has never been about me, but an acknowledgment of the strong legacy in plant biology at Bethel established by some of my predecessors, notably Jacob Doell and Dwight Platt.”
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.