Charles M. Rick
by his son, John Rick
M. Rick, Jr., Professor Emeritus of the University of California, Davis
and the world's foremost authority on tomato genetics, passed away
peacefully in the early morning hours of Sunday, May fifth .
Known worldwide for his major scientific
contributions as a plant geneticist and botanist, the majority of
Charlie Rick’s career focused on the genetic variability of the tomato,
especially the wild tomato species distributed widely in western South
America and the Galapagos Islands.
In addition to the thorough studies of
tomato genes and chromosomes, he organized numerous plant-collecting
expeditions to the Andes to sample the wide range of genetic variation
found in the wild species, but missing from the modern domestic tomato.
Crisscrossing this rugged terrain, he managed to document and preserve
an amazing diversity of tomato varieties with qualities such as disease
resistance that can be bred back into the tomato we know.
In his later years, Rick established and
directed the C. M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center at the Davis
campus of the University of California, which serves as a permanent bank
of genetic material for the tomato and other members of the nightshade
family. This center distributes seeds to scientists world-wide, and its
holdings include genetic varieties that have become extinct in the wild.
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1915,
Rick grew up working in orchards and enjoying nature study in the Boy
Scouts. He took his B.S. degree at Penn State, where he met and married
the late Martha Overholts, daughter of a well-known faculty expert on
mushrooms. Together they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he
earned his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1940, concentrating on botany and plant
genetics. He had previously established California connections by
working with the Burpee seed company in Lompoc, and as soon as he
finished at Harvard he joined the faculty of the Vegetable Crops
Department at Davis, where he remained for his career of more than sixty
He taught temporarily at other
universities throughout the world, and remained active in the field of
plant genetics until the age of 85, when health difficulties interfered
with greenhouse and lab work. In the course of his career, Rick
accumulated many honors, including membership in the National Academy of
Sciences, and recognition from dozens of universities and learned
societies. He received the Alexander von Humboldt Award, and was also
the first recipient of the Filipo Maseri Florio World Prize in
Agriculture in 1997.
An excellent lecturer, Rick was much
sought after by universities who valued both his rigorous science and
his humor and flair for storytelling. A perennial favorite involved his
frustrations in trying to germinate wild tomato seeds collected from the
Galapagos Islands. The emerging mystery of how the plants reproduce in
the wild was only resolved after the seeds were 'processed' by passing
through the digestive track of a Galapagos tortoise, resulting in
vigorous seedlings. Much of Rick’s most fascinating work came from a
firsthand perception of the plants' roles in local environments and
their evolving reproductive strategies. Over time, Rick’s work on tomato
genetics established this plant as an important model organism in the
era of genomics.
Report of the Tomato Genetics
Number 52 – September 2002.
"Renowned UC Davis tomato geneticist dies,"
Dateline UC Davis, Patricia Bailey.