Monday, October 09, 2006

Girl Scientists of Previous Centuries

Alice Eastwood (1859-1953) was my alter ego for Saturday, Oct 7th. What fun to portray a botanist of the previous turn of the century and thus combine my interests in history and nature!

The occasion was Girl Scout day at Dinosaur Ridge, where the girls had an opportunity to meet real modern-day women geoscientists, as well as ‘Mary Anning’ (1799-1847) and ‘Alice.’ [Mary was the discoverer of the ichthyosaur and the inspiration for the old nursery rhyme, ‘she sells sea shells…’ She collected and sold fossils from the shores of Lyme Regis to help lift her family from poverty.]

Alice was a self-taught botanist who spent her high school years in nearby Denver and came to Morrison and the foothills on plant collecting trips. In 1892, she moved to San Francisco as co-curator of the California Academy of Sciences herbarium. She was promoted to sole curator in 1894, with the retirement of her mentor, Katharine Brandegee.

Twelve years later, when the Great Earthquake struck the city, Alice and a few friends rescued 1,497 of the most important plant specimens from the collection of 100,000 pressed plants. For that feat and her lifelong significance as a collector she is well-remembered today. Her memory is aided by having her name associated with hundreds of plants, either as the botanist who first described them or as the person in whose honor they were named. Among Colorado plants, for example, we have Eastwood’s monkeyflower, Mimulus eastwoodiae. Thirteen Colorado plants still bear valid names she gave them; many others have been reclassified.

By 1942, Alice had more than replaced the lost specimens; in fact, her collecting trips and plant exchanges had helped the Academy’s collections number 300,000. She retired in 1949 at the age of 90. As I told the Girl Scouts, being a field scientist (and exercising a lifelong sense of curiosity) keeps you young!

Read more of Alice’s story here.

Photo of Alice Eastwood, circa 1897 or 1910.

Photo of Alice taken for her 80th birthday, 1939.

Images link to California Academy of Sciences pages.


Anonymous said...

Correct spelling is Katharine (not Katherine) Brandegee.

SLW said...

Noted... and corrected. Thanks, Anon.