by Manasvi Verma
In all my travels I’ve never been attacked by a wild animal, lost my way or caught a disease… I don’t think there’s any place in the world where a woman can’t venture.– Ynés Mexía
As the climate disaster becomes more imminent, environmental conservation is a pressing need. Recently at the forefront of public discourse, this movement has been simmering behind-the-scenes for many decades. It began in California in the early 1900s, as industrial expansion threatened natural habitats. An early member of the movement, Ynés Mexia, became active in preserving California’s redwood forests and national parks. Her work in conservation inspired her to begin studying botany at the mere age of 51! An uncommon feat even today, she went on to become a prolific botanist who collected 150,000 specimens, discovered 500 new species and 2 new genera in her short 13-year career. An astounding 50 plants are named in her honor.
Mexia was born in 1870 in Washington D.C. where her father was a Mexican diplomat. Her family moved back to Mexico where she was sent to a boarding school at the age of nine. After her schooling, she took over her father’s business for several years. However, her early life was rife with struggle including two failed marriages and severe physical and mental health issues. It was for her medical needs that she moved to San Francisco where she found her calling. She joined the Sierra Club and Save the Redwoods League and fell in love with northern California’s landscape and biodiversity, finding immense solace in nature. Inspired by her new-found love, she enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1921 where was introduced to botany and developed a passion for collecting and categorizing plants.
She was the first Mexican American female botanist at a time where botanical field work was considered unfeminine and dangerous. However, Mexia refused to be dissuaded by claims that such work was impossible for a woman. She undertook her first plant-collecting expedition to Sinaloa, Mexico, and spent two years exploring the country, collecting more than 1500 specimens. She also went on an expedition to Mt. Kinley in Alaska where she became the first person to collect samples from what is now known as Denali National Park. She was an adventurer like no other, traveling long distances, plowing through dangerous terrain and relishing in the discomfort of her journeys for the pleasure of collecting rare specimens. She famously traversed the Amazon River on a canoe from its delta to its source in the Andes, covering nearly 3,000 miles to get to a collection site. Her unwavering commitment to her mission led her to become a celebrated botanist whose specimens are studied to this day.
Ynés Mexia was a pioneer. Travelling from icy mountains in Alaska to violent volcanoes in Columbia for the sake of scientific progress is rare; for a woman of color, over the age of 50, in the 1900s, it was unheard of. Nevertheless, she persisted, and her tireless collection, preservation, and documentation of biodiversity is an inspiration. As the environmental crisis constrains civilization, Mexia’s legacy is now more important than ever. It reminds us to persevere in the face of adversity and to stop at nothing to accomplish our mission. Even if that means going to the ends of the earth.
Manasvi Verma is a 2nd year PhD student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Harvard Medical School studying host-microbiome interactions in the human gut.
Photograph of Ynés Mexia, published by NYBG, is copyrighted. However, we believe that it’s inclusion in “Ynés Mexia: Master of adventure, botany & conservation” qualifies as fair use because no free-use photograph is available, and it supplements the educational information conveyed in the article by providing a visual reference to a historical figure.
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