A Rare Look Into Ed “Doc” Ricketts’ Lab
Posted on: Friday, May 31, 2013 7:09 AM by Allyson Ryan
Have you ever noticed the rustic wooden shed strategically sandwiched between the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the InterContinental the Clement Monterey on Cannery Row? This location was actually once the laboratory and home of scientist Ed Ricketts. Who is Ed Ricketts you may ask? Ed was a respected marine biologist most known for his work on “Between Pacific Tides” and his influences on a very famous local author; does John Steinbeck ring any bells? The duo pair became fast friends while living in the Pacific Grove area during the ‘30s. Steinbeck even worked a stint in the lab examining marine specimens and discussing philosophy with Ricketts. Steinbeck later fictionalized Ed Ricketts as “Doc” and his laboratory as “Western Biological Laboratories” in his novel Cannery Row. The original laboratory was destroyed during a fire at the next-door Del Mar cannery in 1936 and Ricketts lost nearly everything. Luckily his manuscript for “Between Pacific Tides” was not on site as it had already been sent to the publisher for print. Steinbeck later became a silent partner in the rebuilding and reconstruction of the lab footing half of the bill. Today the historical lab sits at 800 Cannery Row, smack dab in the middle of Monterey’s busiest street. Millions of tourists and passerby’s stroll by the unassuming building each year without a second glance since there are no signs or monuments depicting the site other than the address and “Pacific Biological Laboratories.” Each time I have passed by the lab I am always intrigued by what must lay inside the lonesome walls. Maps of local tide pools? Jars of petrified starfish? Pictures of adorable sea otters? Needing answers to the mysteries in my mind I looked up the next available tour. The historical hot spot is only open for tours four days out of the year which is why I felt extremely privileged to have landed one on May 11th, commemorating Ed Ricketts’ birthday on May 8th. Tours were available every hour from 9am-5pm with a $15 donation to the Cannery Row Foundation. While walking up the well-worn stairs into the “rickett-y” cabin I had no idea what to expect on the inside. I was surprised to find a ‘60s-era looking living room plastered with photos of iconic musicians, celebrities and pop art; definitely not the images of sea life that I had expected. The bookshelf in the middle of the room held an array of books with topics ranging form jazz to art. There were even stacks of old records and a record player perched in the corner by the window overlooking Cannery Row. A random assortment of chairs and furniture were scattered throughout the perimeter of the wooden floor where our tour would begin. Frank Wright was shortly introduced as a friend of Ed Ricketts and one of the owners of the building. Mr. Wright had quite the memory! The captivating 94-year-old was able to recount his stories with Ed Ricketts as if they occurred yesterday. In the early ‘50s Frank purchased the lab with several other men to use as a social club where they would have long dinners, engage in discussion and listen to classical music. This group eventually began what we now know as the Monterey Jazz Festival. Frank and his buddies eventually sold the property to the City of Monterey for a steal of $170,000 with the exception that Frank gets to keep a key. I could have listened to Mr. Wright’s storytelling all day but there was still much more of the lab that we had to see as the tour moved into the groovy bar/lounge area. Retro posters, empty beer and liquor bottles and books scattered the walls and a piano sat in the middle of the room. I could easily imagine a group of lively men from all walks of life talking about music, food and pastimes in this creative environment; if only these walls could talk! On the way out to the yard of the lab we peaked into the “Sophia” bathroom where a large art deco portrait of Sophia Lauren hung; it had bachelor written all over it! The mixed media was actually produced by club member John Boit Morse, son of Pebble Beach owner Samuel F.B. Morse. The backyard of the lab was the highlight and was exactly what I was hoping for on this tour. It is no wonder why Ed Ricketts choose to place his laboratory on this location as it is perched above the Pacific Ocean with easy access to the tide pools down below. There was an array of constructed concrete tanks which is where Ricketts would sort his specimens before processing. These basins were actually the main reason why Ricketts purchased this property in 1929. To the side of the backyard was Ed Ricketts’ basement where most of his projects and experiments took place. Several of his apothecary jars were still up but many of the original specimens are on exhibit at the neighboring Monterey Bay Aquarium. This was an eye-opening and fascinating rare look at the “wooden shack on Cannery Row.” Stay tuned for details on the next tour taking place in October! For more information on Ed Ricketts' Lab visit www.CanneryRow.org.