Curiosity was her driving force. Regents Professor Emerita Sue Ritter was fascinated by what she described as “the controlling grasp of biological need on brain function.” That fascination led her to make discoveries in how the brain senses and responds to changes in circulating metabolic fuels.
“What I really admired and respected about Sue’s work was the clarity and attention to detail,” says Steve Simasko, a longtime friend, collaborator, and chair of the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University. “Sue had high standards, but she held herself to those high standards and led by example. She was the consummate professional and a hard worker. She was a very careful researcher and very thorough.”
Wilma Sue Ritter died March 14, 2021, at home in Viola, Idaho. She was 75.
During her 46-year career at WSU, Sue published 121 peer-reviewed studies, maintained 43 years of continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health, chaired 11 doctoral thesis committees, and coauthored two books with her husband, Robert “Bob” Ritter, a professor emeritus of physiology. Their offices were next door to each other for decades.
“Our sons always teased us at the dinner table about trying to keep the conversation to something other than science,” he says. “We edited each other’s papers. We criticized each other’s ideas for grants. We were partners in everything we did except in actually doing research.”
In her essay “I Wondered as I Wandered,” Sue wrote, “In discovering Bob, I discovered myself.” They wed the day after he graduated with his bachelor’s degree and moved west in 1974 after completing their doctorates—hers in physiological psychology at Bryn Mawr College, his in biology and neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania—for appointments in Pullman.
That first year at WSU was “trial by fire,” Bob recalls. “I didn’t have any teaching experience, and Sue had very little. We had lots of credits to teach, and we were trying to write grants. It took us awhile to find our feet.”
Back then, he notes, there were “very few female faculty at WSU and very few women in our (vet med) classes.” His wife faced challenges he didn’t. “Most of them were products of the time and sound trite now in the retelling,” Sue wrote. “Like discovering that the male graduate student in the program where I was accepted received a graduate assistantship that was three times more than mine … Like having the vet students file a formal complaint because they found it hard to take a pregnant professor seriously.”
Her research significantly influenced the fields of nutrition, diabetes, and obesity. Sue Ritter is best known for demonstrating that the ability for the brain to control blood glucose levels and repair deficits depends on groups of neurons in the caudal brainstem. “She identified those neurons,” Bob says, “and demonstrated that there were two subgroups of neurons that use the same neurotransmitter. However, one group projects up to the front part of the brain and controls steroid secretion and food intake while another projects down the spinal cord and controls hormone secretion from the adrenal medulla, which affects blood glucose.”
Throughout her career, she gave more than 70 invited presentations and was actively involved with the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior, serving on several committees as well as the board of directors. She helped establish WSU’s neuroscience baccalaureate degree program, served as a visiting professor of medicine in London and Australia, and won the Sahlin Faculty Excellence Award for Research, Scholarship, and the Arts in 2009. In 2015, the same year she was diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer, she was inducted into the Washington State Academy of Science.
The Ritters retired in 2019. In addition to her husband, she is survived by two sons—singer and songwriter Josh Ritter and Lincoln Ritter, a software engineer—as well as four grandchildren.
“There are plenty of colleagues who remember her as a thought-leader,” Bob says. “But the things that everybody—from people in sciences to people in her church congregation—remembers her for are her warmth and her smile.”
Outside of science, Sue was a painter and a poet who loved cooking, sunsets, and the way wild grasses move in the wind.
“She was a keen observer of nature,” Bob says. “She called my attention to the natural world. She was really interested in the way the Palouse hills changed their textures in different kinds of snow and in different seasons. I remember her as a person who noticed everything. That’s one of the things that brought us together.”
Obituary of Sue Ritter (Short’s Funeral Chapel website)
First We Eat (feature article in our Winter 2010 issue about Sue and Bob Ritter’s research on appetite)