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As I have noted in earlier diaries, women were much more involved in scientific exploration than is commonly thought. This was especially so in the botanical sciences and one such woman was Ynes Mexia. Mexia lived a very troubled life, from which botanical exploration offered a productive respite and gave her purpose.  In essence she escaped into the world of tropical plants and in the process produced an archive of new records and species, which is still being studied today.

Ynes Enriquetta Julietta Mexia was born in Georgetown, Washington, DC.  He father was a Mexican diplomat and her mother American.  The marriage broke up in 1873, when Ynes was three, and her father went back to Mexico City. Her mother took the children, including Ynes and six she had from a previous marriage, and moved to Limestone County, Texas.  After her early education at St. Joseph's Academy in Maryland, she followed her father to Mexico City and was with him him until his death in the late 1890s (at least two dates are given for his death.) Her mother died in 1896. Initially she planed to become a nun, but her father's will stipulated that if she did she would be cut out of the inheritance she shared with a stepsister. She and her stepsister still wound up having to fight for the money with her father's mistress and a stepbrother, but they finally won.  She then married twice in a row, much to everybody's surprise, but her first husband died after a long illness in 1904 and her second husband mismanaged the poultry business she had started at her father's hacienda in Mexico City, and she divorced him in 1908.  

She became interested in botany and, after a stint as a social worker in San Francisco and following an association with the Sierra Club, entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1921. She never graduated.  Her real botanical career began in 1925, with the mentoring of Roxanna Ferris, a Stanford botanist.  She explored western Mexico, unfortunately being injured after falling off a cliff.  Nevertheless she collected 500 specimens on that trip and after she recovered she collected in Latin America, including extensive expeditions to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, as well as Mexico,  and Alaska, discovering a number of new species and a new genus. Unlike many female botanists she enjoyed having plants named after her. She died of lung cancer at Berkeley in 1938, having amassed at least 150,000 specimens of vascular plants, most of which were deposited in the California Academy of Sciences, although duplicates were deposited in several other herbaria, including several in European institutions. Her collections are still being analyzed and the final total of species and genera she discovered is apparently still not known, but it may be as many as fifty new species and two new genera. One genus, Mexianthus, was named after her.

She was a member of the California Academy and an honorary member of the Departamento Forestal y de Casa y Pesca de Mexico, as well as several other organizations.

Literature References:

Bonta, Marcia Myers. 1991.  Women in the Field: America's Pioneer Naturalists. Texas A & M University Press.

Internet References:

Ynes Mexia http://researcharchive.calacademy.org/...

Ynes Mexia http://en.wikipedia.org/...

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sat Aug 02, 2014 at 02:26 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech and Backyard Science.

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