Pioneering Women Naturalists of the Bay Area
by Sue Rosenthal on January 01, 2006
From a modern perspective, it is difficult to imagine the time when women in this country were discouraged from seriously pursuing vocations in science and natural history. But until the late 1800s, there were few if any women working in these areas. College education was not available to women until the 1870s, and even with excellent university training and credentials, women were often considered amateurs in their fields of study. In his 1930 book American Naturists (the word meant “naturalists” at the time), author Henry Chester Tracy voiced what was still a widely held belief: “By long inheritance and habit, a woman’s interest is personal and indoor. It does not go out instinctively to an impersonal and useless outdoor world.” Women often came to natural history through the more socially acceptable pursuits of gardening, art, and writing, and their field work was frequently limited to their own gardens and immediate surroundings.
In spite of these attitudes, there were pioneering women who contributed enormously to the understanding of natural history. Some are now well known, but others have remained in relative obscurity. One of the most influential but little known naturalists in the Bay Area was Annie Montague Alexander. Annie Alexander came to her love of nature from her childhood amid the natural wonders on the island of Maui, where she was born in 1867 and lived until her family moved to Oakland when she was in her teens. For nearly all of her 82 years, she explored the natural world, pursuing interests in paleontology, zoology, and botany, and amassing enormous and important collections of fossils, animals, and plants from the West Coast and beyond. She recognized that the rapid growth of cities and development in the West was threatening the survival of indigenous plants and animals, and she strove to document as many as possible through her collections, which included more than 22,700 mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians; over 17,800 plants; and more than 1,500 fossils.
But her vision reached far beyond her own explorations and collections. With her large family fortune, she supported contemporary as well as future natural history research through her generous funding and endowment of museums and research expeditions, including women’s expeditions. In 1907, she pledged funding to the University of California at Berkeley for a museum of vertebrate zoology, with the stipulation that she be granted complete control over how her funds were spent. Recognizing the need for a museum of paleontology, which up to that time had been a division of geology, she created and funded the Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley in 1920. To assure long-term funding for the museums, she created a substantial endowment for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in 1919 and for the Museum of Paleontology in 1934.
Annie Alexander’s pioneering work as a naturalist and benefactress is not well known even today, in part due to her intense dislike of publicity. She protested having species named in her honor; when it happened, it was usually “behind her back.” Her many financial contributions to the university and to research were all accomplished with the greatest possible anonymity. Under protest, she posed for a formal photograph for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, but insisted that it not be displayed while she was alive. Perhaps this distaste for publicity was just her nature; perhaps it was to protect her privacy–her life with Louise Kellogg, her romantic partner and scientific colleague, was highly unorthodox for the time; or perhaps it was bred by society’s minimization of women working in natural history. Nevertheless, Annie Alexander’s legacy as a naturalist and benefactress of naturalists is enormous and lasting.
Botany was the discipline that opened the world of science to women. Beginning in the early 1800s, the study of botany was considered an acceptable pursuit for a woman. In an 1871 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, naturalist Wilson Flagg wrote, “Women cannot conveniently become hunters or anglers, nor can they without some eccentricity of conduct follow birds and quadrupeds to the woods…the only part of natural history which they can pursue out of doors is the study of plants.” However, although increasing numbers of women entered this field by conducting research, collecting plants, and founding and managing botanical organizations, most women botanists were still non-professionals–that is, they were not paid for their work.
Kate Brandegee (Dr. Mary Katharine Layne Curran Brandegee) was one woman who succeeded as a professional botanist, but colleagues and historians at times credited her accomplishments to the men with whom she worked. Kate Brandegee started her career in medicine, as did many of the early male naturalists and explorers. She was one of the first women to be trained and licensed as a physician in California, but found it difficult to build a practice. In the extra time her small medical practice afforded her, she began to study botany through the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Her botanical explorations throughout the state soon became her passion and her collecting and organizing work in the academy’s herbarium gained her the position of curator of botany in 1883. At the time, the academy was the preeminent center for botanical research in the West and, in contrast to its Eastern counterparts, had resolved from its founding that it would “highly approve the aid of females in every department of natural history, and…earnestly invite their cooperation.”
Concerned about the resentment and contempt that male botanists, especially those working on the East Coast, harbored toward women in positions of power, Kate Brandegee at times disguised her role in the work she produced. Her extreme thoroughness and caution in identifying and naming plants was probably due in part to the extra criticism directed toward Western botanists, and especially toward women Western botanists. When she started the scholarly botanical publication Zoe (a woman’s name meaning “life”), she did not include her own name in the masthead until she had published several issues. However, her contributions were legion. In addition to her publishing work, she organized and increased the academy’s herbarium collections and contributed immeasurably to knowledge of the California flora. The extensive and strenuous plant collecting expeditions she undertook on her own and with her husband, Townshend Stith Brandegee, produced one of the most complete representations of the Pacific coast flora of its time.
Most early women naturalists were by necessity strong-willed and independent, but, like Annie Alexander, they were also very supportive of their female colleagues. Kate Brandegee contributed in her own right to the botany of the West, but further advanced the science by encouraging and mentoring Alice Eastwood. The two met when Alice, a young Denver high school teacher and enthusiastic Rocky Mountain plant collector, visited the esteemed California Academy of Sciences. Impressed by Alice’s knowledge, accomplishments, and enthusiasm, Kate invited her to write for Zoe and soon convinced her to work at the academy. Kate gave Alice the position of co-curator of botany in 1892, but paid her the full salary for the job, as Townshend Brandegee’s inheritance had made the couple financially independent. Alice’s competence in the position enabled Kate to retire and pursue her own botanical interests three years later.
In addition to organizing the academy’s herbarium collections, Alice increased those collections by acquiring specimens from other institutions and by her own extensive field work in the Sierra Nevada. She was involved with many local botanical, horticultural, and hiking groups, including the Cross Country Club, of which Annie Alexander was a member. Published accounts of the club’s weekend explorations in the Sierra Nevada were the first Sierra Club bulletins.
Alice Eastwood’s legendary dedication to her work is best known from the story of her heroic efforts during the hours after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In organizing the academy’s botanical collections, she had had the foresight to store irreplaceable type specimens (the preserved specimens selected to serve as permanent reference points for scientific plant names) in one place so they could be retrieved quickly in an emergency. After the earthquake struck, she went to the academy’s building on Market Street, which was partially destroyed and near a raging fire. With an assistant, Alice gained access to the building and pulled herself up the banister of the ruined marble staircase to the top floor, where the 1,200 precious type specimens were stored. They tied up the specimens and lowered them to the first floor with pieced-together ropes. By that time, the fire had reached the building next door and military personnel were not allowing people to remove items from the area. Alice convinced the soldiers to let her take the specimens, and then found private vehicles to transport them to a safer part of the city. When that area was later threatened by fire, she moved the specimens again, and then a third time. Alice lost all of her personal possessions and most of her work, but said of her work, “I do not feel the loss to be mine, but it is a great loss to the scientific world and an irreplaceable loss to California. My own destroyed work I do not lament, but it was a joy to me while I did it, and I can still have the same joy in starting it again.”
She started her Sierran collections anew at age 47, supporting her expeditions with her own small income because no other funds were available. Six years later, the academy asked her to rebuild its herbarium collections for a new facility in Golden Gate Park. From 1912 to 1949, she added 340,000 specimens to the herbarium through acquisitions and her own collecting work. She expanded her mission to educate the public about the world of plants through displays, classes, publications, and the California Horticultural Society, which she helped found.
Alice Eastwood, Annie Alexander, Kate Brandegee, and other pioneering women naturalists opened the field to future generations of women by example as well as through public education and direct support of women’s work in natural history. In a future issue of Bay Nature we’ll further explore the lives and work of these and other women naturalists who have helped us all come to better know nature in the Bay Area and beyond. In the meantime, you can explore on your own in the following books:
Bonta, Marcia Myers, American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneering Women Naturalists, Texas A&M University Press, 1995 Bonta, Marcia Myers, Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists, Texas A&M University Press, 1991 Stein, Barbara R., On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West, University of California Press, 2001 For young readers: Ross, Michael Elsohn, Flower Watching With Alice Eastwood (Naturalist’s Apprentice Biographies Series), Carolrhoda Books, 1997 The author extends her heartfelt thanks to Barbara Ertter for generously sharing her expertise and reference materials on women in natural history and science.