Life in Salt: Dr. Julia Platt – Meet the Brilliant, Obstinate Heroine of Monterey Bay
by Carolyn Sotka
Editor’s Note: A few years ago, Scuttlefish writer Carolyn Sotka and colleague Dr. Stephen R. Palumbi authored a terrific book. The Death and Life of Monterey Bay is a deep human and natural history of this prolific and once plundered embayment that runs from Pacific Grove up to Santa Cruz. One of the most interesting characters in the book, at least in my mind, was the brilliant and obstinate Julia Platt. If you appreciate Monterey Bay’s natural wonders today, you might stop to thank the plucky onetime mayor of Pacific Grove and her tireless work – many years ago. — CD
For close to one hundred years, the life and times of Dr. Julia Platt lie shuffled amongst the shelves in the small Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. Dr. Platt was a formidable force, but those that remembered her and her contributions to conservation science were long gone. While I was not the first person to ‘discover’ her incredible legacy, I was privileged to dust off the archives, and unravel her story as arguably one of the first ladies of marine biology and grandmother of place-based conservation principles.
Last month, Dr. Platt finally received the recognition she long deserved through the dedication of the Lovers Point – Julia Platt State Marine Reserve by the California Fish and Game Commission. Marine reserves are a type of marine protected area (MPA) that restricts all ‘take’, from recreational shell collecting to commercial fishing. California is the first state in the U.S. to set-up a network of MPAs, with over 120 underwater refuges along its 1100-mile coastline. And it all began because of Julia.
I first learned of Julia Platt while working on a project with the Director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, Dr. Steve Palumbi. We were researching a tiny marine reserve that protected the kelp forest and rocky intertidal zone around Hopkins. The process of establishing MPAs in California was at the very beginning and any historical baselines would provide useful information to help designate regional networks.
I guess you could say Steve and I fell in love with Julia the more and more we learned about her. Julia was a character on the order of Huckleberry Finn, but a real person whom we were determined to bring back to life. She became the pivotal protagonist of our book, The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival. The book follows the Bay’s history and documents years of systematic harvesting and poaching – from otters, whales, and abalone, to squid, salmon and during the cannery row days, sardines. It’s a book about the people, places and events that changed the course of the Bay – and led to its rebirth as one of the most pristine and awe-inspiring natural wonders of the world.
Julia Platt was born in San Francisco in 1857, but raised in Burlington and graduated from the University of Vermont in 1882. She went on to become “Dr. Julia,” one of the first American women with a Ph.D. in zoology, earned in Germany in 1898. Being a woman in sciences at the time, and a marine neurobiologist/embryologist to boot, Julia’s road traversed the U.S. and several continents while continually diverting around the many roadblocks she encountered along the way.
Julia Platt as an undergraduate in 1882: Reproduction from the University of Vermont Archives
We did not expect to find so much remarkable history, and it was enough to fill three chapters of The Death and Life of Monterey Bay. After earning her Ph.D., Dr. Platt returned to Monterey to pursue a career at the first marine biological laboratory on the West Coast, what is now the Hopkins Marine Station. After years of futile attempts to get a job with the local universities, the halls of academia closed forever to her. Fortunately, the doors of civic duty opened wide. Her immediate attention was fixated on protecting the place she loved, Monterey and Pacific Grove’s rugged and magnificent coastline.
One of her first acts of ‘civil disobedience’ was to fight for public access to the beach. Here is an excerpt from ‘Chapter 5: Dr. Mayor Julia Platt.’
‘Julia’s most famous battle erupted in the first weeks of 1931 around the principle that public access to the sea could not be blocked by private landowners. The Bath House at Lover’s Point had been acquired by Mrs. J.E. McDougall. In defiance of the property deed, custom and decades of public use, McDougall erected a gate that blocked access to the beach. Immediately Julia decried the action – the way to the sea was open to everyone and she pointed out that in California, beaches are public land from the high tide mark down to the sea. She brandished the original property deed that guaranteed public right of way to the beach…’
‘No amount of the famous Platt argument and no elaborate rhetoric would move McDougall… Julia would not have it, so while the town argument raged on, Julia decided that a hammer and crowbar would do what her arguments could not. She destroyed the padlocked gate but McDougall simply kept replacing it… Undeterred Julia decided to tear down the fence once and for all.’
Image of Julia knocking down the fence. that blocked entrance to Lover’s Point. From Monterey Public Library, History Room Archives.
After she was done, Julia pinned a sign to the gates she that knocked down at the age of 73. It read:
“Opened by Julia B. Platt. This entrance to the beach must be left open at all hours when the public might reasonably wish to pass through. I act in the matter because the Council and Police Department of Pacific Grove are men and possibly somewhat timid.”
Tired of her constant complaining about a variety of local issues, it was suggested she run for mayor. Julia did just that with her motto in hand:
“It will take a good man to beat me, and if a good man is elected that will be all the better.”
None did and she became mayor of Pacific Grove in April 1931 and the second female mayor in California history.
One of Julia Platt’s first acts as mayor was to protect the coast. From her vantage, the Monterey Bay had been under siege, with waste and guts from the sardine plants down the road on Cannery Row suffocating the coast, and from intensive harvesting of marine invertebrates from the rocky intertidal and near-shore waters.
She took action in her backyard, a five-mile swath of coast seen from her house at 557 Ocean View Boulevard. First she drafted a new state law to grant the city of Pacific Grove the title to the waterfront and submerged lands. It passed state legislature and became a city ordinance in April 1932.
The Hopkins Refuge became the first marine reserve in the U.S. of any size. Until then only a pier had been designated as a refuge by Scripps Oceanographic Institute but it wasn’t an actual ‘area’.
Here is an excerpt from ‘Chapter 6: The Power of One – Julia Fights the Canneries’.
‘In her plan, Julia reasoned that the refuge would be the center for scientific research and also serve as a nursery for invertebrates “from where tiny larvae may swim or be carried by currents to all points along the shore and become attached, grow up and replace those taken for food or curio”. This rationale is stunningly similar to modern reasons for protecting marine areas and the replenishment of sets of marine species that interact together….’
‘Julia knew she could repair the damage being done to Monterey Bay by setting aside something intact and bountiful that would be there when needed to naturally seed other areas. Basically, she set up a trust fund for future residents, one that invested not in stocks and bonds but in rock and kelp…’
But the story doesn’t end here. Over the years, I have become so familiar with her that I refer to her fondly by her first name. It is not meant as a sign of disrespect, but instead the marker of an easy-going friendship that led to surprise after surprise as I was pulled in by her powerful tide.
One of those surprises being our serendipitous relationship when I realized we had followed a similar trajectory in pursuit of our careers. We both graduated from University of Vermont as Zoology majors; traveled the world; and had lived within a mile of one another in California and Vermont. Dr. Julia Platt, was my comrade and my neighbor, twice in place but not in time.
Fast forward ten years from that day in the natural history museum and over eighty years since Julia protected the shore. Today, Dr. Julia Platt has the honor as the namesake of one of the most beautiful coastlines, protected forever in perpetuity. Her reserve shares a boundary with Ed Rickett’s namesake – another real person, but also whose life was captured and replayed in literature by his friend John Steinbeck in the book ‘Cannery Row’.
Dr. and Mayor Julia Platt helped pave the road for the many women to come in marine biology. Some of our greatest champions are scientists such as Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Dr. Nancy Knowlton and Dr. Sylvia Earle – the reigning queens of ocean science and conservation and many follow in their footsteps too.
Julia only served two years as mayor before her death. We uncovered a hand-written account of her funeral. Of course, Julia had to go out in style, eccentric until the end, with a request to be buried at sea.
Begrudgingly the 1935 city council members rowed her twelve miles out from shore, laid in a wicker basket filled with flowers. They fastened a fifty-pound metal wheel to her chest and set her free. Accounts say that her body bobbed to the surface once, with her head above water, as if to take one last look at her beloved shore…
Julia and I share a past, we share a path, and we share a passion. Her story and others in ‘The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival’ tell a history of a place that is noteworthy because it is not just a downward trajectory. The same success can happen elsewhere. In the end, it is the people who are inspired to act and whose acts inspire that lead to positive change, ecological rebirth and preservation through sustainable use of our most treasured places.
Kelp, the anchor of life for the Monterey Bay. Giant Brown Kelp (Macrocystis spp.). Photo courtesy of Clinton Bauder.
To learn more about MPAs networks in California check out the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s on-line resources. – CS