Charles Rick, a plant geneticist and botanist recognized by
many as the world's leading authority on the biology of the
tomato, died Sunday, May 5, in Davis. A professor emeritus at
the University of California, Davis, he was 87.
His family is planning a June open house in his honor for
friends and colleagues. In accordance with his wishes, no
formal services will be held.
Something of a modern-day Charles Darwin and Indiana Jones
combined, Professor Rick was equally at home in the
classroom, greenhouse, laboratory and field. His research
expeditions took him from the Galapagos Islands to high in
the Andes, where he criss-crossed rugged terrain to collect
hundreds of wild tomato species. These wild species contained
a wide range of genetic variation that was missing from the
modern domestic tomato.
During his career, he made landmark contributions in the
areas of plant genetics, evolution, genome mapping and
archiving the seeds of tomatoes and related plant species.
In 1967, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences,
one of the highest honors for research scientists.
"Among his colleagues, Dr. Rick was considered the
quintessential scientist," said UC Davis professor John
Yoder, chair of the Department of Vegetable Crops. "His
passion was learning and discovery, not fortune or fame. He
had a contagious enthusiasm for biology that impacted and
motivated all who knew him."
Born in 1915 in Reading, Pa., Charles Rick grew up working in
orchards and participating in nature studies through the Boy
He earned a bachelor's degree in horticulture in 1937 from
Pennsylvania State University, where he met and married
Martha Overholts. The couple then moved to Cambridge, Mass.,
where he earned a doctoral degree in genetics from Harvard
University in 1940.
He came to UC Davis in 1940 as a faculty member in the
vegetable crops department, launching a career that would
span more than 60 years.
A colleague soon suggested that Rick investigate what was
wrong with "bull" tomato plants, vines that seemed to pour
all of their energy into vegetative growth without producing
At first, the proposed project struck Rick as "a damn fool
thing to think about," he admitted in later years. But he
became convinced that the problem merited investigation and
went on to discover a host of genetic conditions in the
sterile tomato plants. He was able to identify the genetic
causes for flower infertility and define several single-gene
mutants that are now used to provide commercial hybrid tomato
His studies led him to construct a genetic "linkage map" that
pinpointed the locations of many mutant or variable genes on
each of the tomato's 12 chromosomes. It was the beginning of
his pioneering effort to map the tomato's entire collection
of genes, now known as its genome.
Professor Rick's early work laid the foundation for molecular
maps that today make the tomato genome one of the best-mapped
plant genomes. His efforts to identify the genetic basis of
resistance to the nematode -- a tiny worm pest -- made it
possible to develop nematode-resistant tomato varieties.
Because the tomato has been so well characterized
genetically, it now serves as a research model for plant
scientists and can be more readily modified for commercial
In addition to his contributions to building a better
understanding of the tomato as a crop, Professor Rick also
made important contributions to the field of plant evolution.
His research helped advance the understanding of the
relationship between the geographic distribution of plant
species and their ability to crossbreed with each other. His
work also helped clarify the impact of flower structure on a
plant's ability to crossbreed with other species. And his
research on structure, crossability, native habitat and
geographic distribution helped explain the evolutionary
relationships among various tomato species.
In 1949, Professor Rick co-founded the Tomato Genetics
Cooperative to encourage tomato researchers to communicate
their findings and exchange information. He took sole
responsibility for publishing the cooperative's report from
its beginning in 1951 until 1981.
Perhaps one of his greatest contributions was in establishing
and serving as curator for the Tomato Genetics Resource
Center at UC Davis. The center is the largest known
collection of tomato seeds in the world. Professor Rick
devoted countless hours to collecting, cataloging,
maintaining and distributing seeds from wild species and
genetic stock. Many primitive varieties and wild species that
were collected and maintained at the center are now extinct
in their native habitats. Furthermore, many of the unique
mutant tomato stocks developed by researchers throughout the
world would have been lost without Rick's efforts to archive
His tireless efforts were recognized in 1990, when the center
was renamed the Charles M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource
Professor Rick's legacy can also be found in several
generations of plant geneticists whom he mentored. His
students went on to lead major research institutes, serve as
ministers of agriculture and work as faculty members at
universities on every continent.
Over the years he received a host of prestigious awards. They
included the Alexander von Humboldt Award in 1993, the
Filippo Maseri Florio World Prize for Distinguished Research
in Agriculture in 1997 and induction to the American Society
of Horticultural Sciences Hall of Fame in 1998.
Although officially retired from UC Davis in 1985, Professor
Rick remained active in the field of plant genetics until the
age of 85, when health difficulties interfered with his
greenhouse and laboratory work. Usually sporting the
trademark cloth fishing hat that he wore in both formal and
informal settings, he was known as a modest person, full of
amusing anecdotes. He had a passion for traveling, the arts,
meeting new people and enjoying foreign cultures.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Martha, and is survived
by his daughter, Susan Rick Baldi, and son, John Rick, who
are academics at Santa Rosa Junior College and Stanford
University. He also leaves three grandchildren and one great-
A scholarship fund is being established in Professor Rick's
memory that will help support South American students and
scholars interested in promoting biodiversity in the Andes.
Contributions should be made payable to the Charles Rick
Scholarship Fund and sent in care of Professor John Yoder,
Department of Vegetable Crops, University of California, One
Shields Ave, Davis, Ca. 95616-8687.