Alice Eastwood

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Alice Eastwood

Botanist Alice Eastwood (1859-1953) amassed a startlingly detailed amount of research on the flowering plants and herbs native to the California coast and the Colorado Rocky Mountains. It was her ardent collecting of plant specimens that helped establish a definitive classification table for the flora of North America.

Born on January 19, 1859, in Toronto, Canada, Eastwood was the daughter of Eliza Jane Gowdey and Colin Skinner Eastwood. Her father was the steward at the Toronto Asylum for the Insane in Ontario, and she lived on the grounds of the institution as a young child. Her paternal ancestry reached back several generations in Canada, and her grandfather had built the first paper mill in Ontario. When she was six, her mother died, and Eastwood took on many household duties involving her younger brother and sister. When their father began to suffer financial troubles, the children were taken in by relatives, and Eastwood lived for a time with a physician uncle. He was an avid gardener and amateur botanist, and from him she began to learn the scientific names of plants.

At the age of eight, Eastwood was sent to a Roman Catholic convent school outside of Toronto where she and her sister were the only boarders. There she came to know another amateur botanist, a priest, who also encouraged her interest in plants and nature. After some six years at the convent, Eastwood moved to Denver, Colorado, to join her father and attend East Denver High School. Again she shouldered much of the cooking and cleaning for her household, and the family's circumstances forced her to take after-school work as a seamstress as well. As a result, she endured long days and nights; once, when her father was working as a janitor at her high school, he and Eastwood's younger brother took on a paper route. This meant that Eastwood had to rise at 4 a.m. in order to start the fires in the basement of the school, but she used the time to do her homework.

Taught High School

Despite these obstacles, Eastwood graduated first in her class in 1879. Unable to afford college, she became a high school teacher in the city for the next decade, a job that left her summers free to hunt for plant specimens. By this time she was an avid collector, but she needed to live frugally in order to afford the expensive scientific books on her pet subject. Though it was considered somewhat improper for a woman to roam about the countryside by herself collecting plants, Eastwood cared little about convention and borrowed a horse, shortened her skirts at the ankles so she might hike hills more easily, and carried a plant press on her back. Yet she also lived in an age when the American West was still uncharted territory in some places. She was robbed on one occasion, and on another became lost near Colorado's border with Utah and spent the night on a canyon ledge.

Over the next few years Eastwood became well known in Denver for her knowledge in all matters botanical. When a highly regarded British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, planned a visit to the city, her name was recommended to serve as his guide for a collecting hike on Gray's Peak. Eastwood also became friends with the Wetherill brothers, who owned a large ranch near the Utah border. They had discovered Mesa Verde, a vast complex of pre-Columbian cliff dwellings that quickly became a renowned archeological site. When a more modern real-estate boom occurred in Denver in 1890, Eastwood was surprised to find that she and her father each pocketed $10,000 from the sale of a building they had acquired. The windfall allowed her to quit teaching for good, and she reinvested the funds in other real estate holdings that would give her a steady income for the rest of her life.

Roamed the Wild West

Eastwood had always been eager to visit California and add specimens from its flora to her growing collection. She journeyed to San Diego, and then explored the Santa Cruz and Monterey Peninsula areas as well. When she arrived in San Francisco, she was introduced to Katharine Brandegree, the curator of botany at the California Academy of Sciences. Brandegree gave her Eastwood a job as a writer for the Academy's botanical magazine, Zoe, and a job in its herbarium as well. At the time, the Academy's collection of flora was the largest in the western United States. She accepted the job, but returned to Denver to her finish book, A Popular Flora of Denver, Colorado, which she and her father published in 1893. She also made another journey with the Wetherills to Montezuma Canyon; she was the first botanist of record to investigate Utah's Great Basin, a vast desert area.

In between stints at the Academy, Eastwood continued to explore on her own and gather specimens; many of these were "type" specimens-in botany parlance, the first sample of a species to be described and named. She usually did so under the roughest of conditions; once, in a California's San Joaquin Valley, she slept in an abandoned shed for two nights, but discovered a new member of the sunflower family. Eastwood knew by heart all the stagecoach routes to the counties surrounding the Bay Area and on foot was known to clock a rate of four miles per hour. Eastwood, perhaps because of the hardships of her early life, was never interested in marriage and had stated on occasion that she feared a romantic attachment might stand in the way of her first love, botany.

Offered Prestigious Post

Back in San Francisco, Eastwood became curator of botany when Brandegree and her husband left the Academy. Her first task was to organize the Academy's vast collections of specimens, and then to bring in more to fill in the gaps. Some of her work and much from the Academy was lost as a result of the great San Francisco earthquake in April of 1906. At the time, the rumblings woke Eastwood from her lodgings in a garret room on Nob Hill. She dressed and ran to the Academy building on Market Street and began working with her assistant to retrieve as many specimens as possible. The herbarium was located on the sixth floor of the building, a considerable danger due to an adjacent paint plant that had erupted in flames. Eastwood arranged to have the specimens safely stored, then took shelter with friends in Berkeley. In all, 1,497 plant specimens were rescued from the Academy that day. Her own personal collection, which Eastwood began assembling in her teens, was lost.

As cited in Carol Green Wilson's Alice Eastwood's Wonderland: The Adventures of a Botanist, Eastwood penned a letter to the journal Science a few weeks later about the city's tragedy and the tremendous civic spirit she witnessed in the hours following: "[N]obody seemed to be complaining or sorrowful. The sound of trunks being dragged along I can never forget. This seemed the only groan the city made… ." As for the Academy itself, "I did not feel the loss to be mine," she wrote, "but it is a great loss to the scientific world and an irreparable loss to California. My own destroyed work I do not lament, for it was a joy to me while I did it, and I can still have the same joy in starting it again… ."

Traveled Extensively

True to her nature, Eastwood returned to San Francisco after the fires had died down and explored the broken walls and open basement sites of the rubble to see which kinds of plants remained. Her job at the Academy was on temporary hiatus, so she took advantage of assistantships and posts offered to her by the renowned scholars she had come to know. She worked at the University of California at Berkeley and made a trip across the United States. She was a guest at Theodore Roosevelt's White House and worked at the celebrated Asa Gray Herbarium in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also visited Europe in 1911, spending time at the famed hothouses of Kew Gardens in London and enjoying a stint as an unregistered student at Cambridge University.

The following year the Academy reopened, and she became curator of botany once again. The specimens she had saved, along with a shipload of plant and animal specimens that arrived after the earthquake from the Academy's famed Galapagos Islands expedition, would become the institution's cornerstones. Over the next 40 years, Eastwood oversaw the acquisition of 340,000 specimens for its botany collection and helped make the Academy's library of botanical literature an impressive one. She became a celebrated Bay Area fixture as an active member of the San Francisco Floral Society who curated its lavish annual shows. She was also a key player in the city's efforts to make its Golden Gate Park a renowned arboretum and horticultural spot. For several years she held weekly classes for its gardeners. The sunflower-type bush she had discovered in the San Joaquin Valley had been named Eastwoodia elegans in her honor, and she was pleased to learn that whenever oil was discovered somewhere in California, the shrub was likely to be near.

Studied Aftermath of Brush Fires

Eastwood lived in the Russian Hill district of the city but also kept a mountain cabin in the Tamalpais section of Marin County. This served as her hiking headquarters for many years, but it was a leveled by a brush fire. She revisited the area some seven years later and was surprised to see some things that she had planted still growing. She wrote an article for a journal, as cited by Wilson, called "The Aftergrowth of a Mountain Fire," noting that the roots of the manzanita and California lilac seemed to endure conflagration. "Stranger than the behaviour of these woody plants," she wrote, "is that of some of the humble herbs. These appear for a year or two, then are not seen again until another fire when once again they spring forth." It was one of 300 published articles she wrote in her lifetime.

Eastwood's plant-collecting forays into the California countryside continued unabated until 1932 when she was struck by a car at the entrance to Golden Gate Park. Her knee was permanently damaged. That same year, she also launched Leaflets of Western Botany with her assistant (and later successor), John Thomas Howell, a highly regarded forum for botanical research. Eastwood enjoyed an international reputation. Her eightieth birthday was the occasion of a series of honors at the Academy; proceeds from a banquet became the first contributions to the Alice Eastwood Herbarium there.

Eastwood retired from the Academy in 1950 at the age of ninety and was given the title Curator-Emeritus. That same year, she journeyed to Stockholm, Sweden, to accept an award from the Seventh International Botanical Congress. Eastwood died of cancer on October 30, 1953, in San Francisco. The plant specimens she collected remain a vital part of the plant archives at the California Academy of Sciences.


Notable Women Scientists, Gale Group, 2000.

Wilson, Carol Green, Alice Eastwood's Wonderland: The Adventures of a Botanist, California Academy of Sciences, 1955. □

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Alice Eastwood

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