March 24, 2021
Ynes Mexia
Women in Science & Nature
Photo Credit for image on right: California Academy of Sciences
Born in 1870, Ynés Mexía was a Mexican-American botanic adventurer who defied societal norms and began plant collecting in her early fifties, proving that it’s never too late to pursue one’s passions. Throughout her 13-year career, she traveled extensively from Alaska through Central and South America collecting over 145,000 specimens and discovering over 500 species with at least 50 named in her honor.

The daughter of a Mexican diplomat, Mexía grew up in Washington DC, but spent most of her young adulthood in Mexico where she married twice, losing one husband in death and the other to divorce when he financially ruined her father’s ranch. She succumbed to mental and physical distress for a period of time, but her love for nature and wild places would ultimately renew her and give her new purpose. When Mexía moved to San Francisco in 1909, she joined the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations where she fought to save the redwoods. In 1921, she enrolled at UC Berkeley at the age of 51 and discovered her interest in botany.

Photo Credit: California Academy of Sciences

Embracing her love for solitude, Mexía set out on numerous solo excursions where riding horseback in pants and sleeping outside were activities women did not normally do. One of her excursions took two and a half years as she traveled along the Amazon River by canoe to its source in the Andes. Throughout her travels, Mexía recognized the valuable knowledge and expertise of indigenous people. For instance, when she ate poisonous berries, an indigenous guide told her to use a feather to coax the food back up her throat. Fearless and tireless, she also sustained broken ribs after falling from a cliff. Despite her injury, she returned with thousands of specimens.

Mexía died from lung cancer in 1938. She leaves behind a legacy as an accomplished botanist whose prolific plant collecting are still in use today.

LEFT: Many of Mexia's specimens are rare like the Mexianthus mexicana.

Photo credit: The Field Museum herbarium, collected by Ynés Mexía in 1926.

RIGHT:  Mosses of Western Mexico collected by Mrs. Ynes Mexia and published in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Libraries via Biodiversity Heritage Library

Resources:

  • The Perfect Specimen: The 20th Century Renown Botanist Ynes Mexia
    by Durlynn Anema
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