Photo of Katherine Esau

Katherine Esau

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For her distinguished service to the American community of plant biologists, and for the excellence of her pioneering research, both basic and applied, on plant structure and development, which has spanned more than six decades; for her superlative performance as an educator, in the classroom and through her books; for the encouragement and inspiration she has given to a legion of young, aspiring plant biologists; and for providing a special role model for women in science.

Katherine Esau studied botany in three different languages — Russian, Germany and English — before committing to share her discoveries with the United States.

Esau spent most of her career studying plant anatomy and the effects of viruses in plants. Today, botanists and biologists still use her research as the basis for their own studies.

But working and living in the United States was not her original plan.

Esau grew up in Ukraine in the early 1900s. Her father was mayor of her hometown Yekaterinoslav —now called Dnepropetrovsk.

During the Bolshevik Revolution, Esau’s father was removed from office and the family feared for his safety. Her family fled Ukraine in 1918 and traveled by train more than 1,000 miles to Berlin, Germany. The trip, which would have normally taken two days, took two weeks to complete.

In 1922, Esau and her family immigrated to California, where she began her graduate work and eventually became a professor.

By Rachel Warren