Charles 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 5th. 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 60 years. 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. His 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
Rick taught and mentored generations of U.S. and international scientists in plant genetics. His students went on to lead major research institutes, serve as ministers of agriculture and other governmental roles, and become faculty at universities on every continent. They have worked on studying and improving many major crops, including rice, grapes, potatoes, and peppers. His children continued in academics; his daughter Susan Baldi teaches anatomy and physiology at Santa Rosa Junior College, and his son John is an archaeologist at Stanford. Three grandchildren and a great grandchild were his greatest joys in his last years.