Eastwood, Alice (1859–1953)

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Eastwood, Alice (1859–1953)

Canadian-born American botanist and naturalist who was a pioneer in the environmental movement in California. Born on January 19, 1859, in Toronto, Canada; died in San Francisco, California, on October 30, 1953; daughter of Colin Skinner Eastwood and Eliza Jane (Gowdey) Eastwood; had one sister and brother; never married.

Much of Alice Eastwood's childhood was difficult. She lost her mother when she was six and was separated from her brother, who was left with relatives while her father retired to parts unknown to make the fortune that had so far eluded him. Alice and her sister were placed in Toronto's Oshawa Convent, a gloomy setting that provided little in the way of intellectual stimulation for a bright young girl interested in nature. A French priest at the convent taught Alice much about gardening, however. Friend-ship with a nun and the responsibilities of watching over her younger sister kept Alice occupied, and her characteristic optimism buoyed her spirits even in the darkest hours of her early life.

When Eastwood was 14, her father suddenly reappeared. Having established himself as a storekeeper in Denver, Colorado, he offered his daughters a home there. Alice jumped at the opportunity and quickly settled in, becoming an excellent pupil at East Denver High School. Once again financial stresses buffeted the Eastwood family, and Alice had to work while attending school. Her father hoped that she would quit school to earn money for the family, but she continued her studies and graduated as valedictorian in 1879. She then embarked on a teaching career at East Denver High School.

Although Alice Eastwood quickly earned a reputation as an excellent teacher and was respected by her students, she eagerly anticipated summer vacations when she would spend as much time as possible in the high Rockies—by train, buckboard stage, horseback, and on foot—identifying wildflowers and collecting specimens for her herbarium. Soon her enthusiasm for exploration became so well known locally that the railroad builder David Moffat issued her a free rail pass; Alice reciprocated his generous support by naming a plant she had discovered, Penstemon moffatii, in his honor.

When the famous English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace visited Denver in 1887 and insisted that he wanted to explore nearby Gray's Peak, Eastwood was presented as the person best equipped to be his guide. The famous scientist in his 60s and the unknown amateur naturalist still in her 20s enjoyed three wonderful days in the mountains, spending their nights in rough miners' cabins and making it to the summit of Gray's Peak. Wallace, writing in his autobiography My Life, noted that he had found many new alpine plants on this adventure. Alice later recalled with equal enthusiasm, "We luxuriated here in plants that were altogether new to me."

By 1890, supported by a small but assured income from real-estate sales and rentals made by her and her father, Eastwood resigned from her teaching job. She now devoted her full time to her true love, botany. She toured California and met with botanists there who encouraged her to move to that state to continue her collecting activities. In 1892, she returned to California, settling in San Francisco where she accepted a modest assistantship at the California Academy of Sciences. Eastwood also took on the task of founding and directing the activities of the California Botanical Club. By 1894, she had succeeded Katharine Brandegee as curator of the Herbarium at the Academy. Never interested in calling attention to her own achievements, she stated, "My desire is to help, not to shine."

From the start of her life in California, Eastwood undertook extensive field work. She explored little-known regions like the inner south Coast Ranges, where she discovered a number of hitherto uncatalogued plants and flowers. Hardy and energetic as well as enthusiastic, Eastwood investigated on foot many regions of California, often making friends with the men and women she met on lonely, isolated ranches. When she encountered ill and hungry women and their impoverished children, Eastwood always stopped to share her provisions with them; upon returning to San Francisco, she sent food and clothing back to the needy families she had met. "To me human beings are as interesting as the plants," she wrote, "and there were situations … that were unusual because of the isolation."

Although she was a bold explorer capable of traveling anywhere on her own, Eastwood was not a loner by nature. She enjoyed the company of others who loved nature and was a loyal member of the "Hill Tribe," a group of San Franciscans who enjoyed roaming about nearby Mt. Tamalpais on Sundays. Clad in a buttoned denim skirt she had designed herself, with a heavy cotton nightgown as a bustle, she walked four miles an hour, never tiring, while carrying her heavy plant presses on her back. When exploring the Sierras, she was a member of a men's hiking group, the Cross Country Club. Among the mountains she climbed were Mt. Shasta and Mt. Whitney, the latter with members of the Sierra Club.

By 1905, Eastwood had accumulated a first-rate botanical collection for the California Academy of the Sciences. Something told her to separate out the irreplaceable specimens and keep these in one place where she could easily find them in an emergency. That emergency came on April 18, 1906, when the San Francisco earthquake and fire devastated the city. Although her part of town did not feel the quake as much as other areas, Alice went to the Academy's building after breakfast and, finding it partially demolished and threatened by fire from nearby ruins, managed to get into the front hall. Making it to the herbarium on the sixth floor proved to be a considerable challenge in the wrecked building. Eastwood went up, as she described in a letter to the journal Science, "chiefly by holding on to the iron railing and putting [her] feet between the rungs."

Unable to save any books or any of her own possessions, "except my favorite lens, without which I should feel helpless," she was nevertheless able to rescue 1,211 botanical specimens by pitching them out the window. The military forbade possessions being taken out of the stricken area, but Eastwood pleaded that an exception be made for her specimens and the Academy's files that she had transported out via private conveyance. With the help of friends, the precious items were taken first to Russian Hill, and, when that seemed threatened, they were moved to Fort Mason.

During this time, Eastwood neglected the safety of her own home, which burned to the ground. She lost all her books, pictures and "many treasures that I prized highly" but took this in stride, remarking, "I regret nothing for I am rich in friends and things seem of small account." In a narrative of the disaster she wrote for the Academy, Eastwood said that she did not "feel the loss to be mine, 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."

At age 47, Eastwood set out to recreate the botanical collection that had been destroyed. She returned to the valleys and mountains to recollect the lost specimens, and hopefully find a few new ones as well. Since there was no money for this project, she used her own small income. From this point until her death almost a half-century later, she did her share to rebuild the lost library of the Academy by purchasing books for it whenever she received gifts of money for her birthday. With the Academy hard hit by the disaster, the fate of its herbarium remained in limbo. Eventually, Eastwood obtained a job as a staff assistant while the situation at the Academy remained unresolved. But she had hope in its ultimate destiny, working as an unpaid researcher at the botany department of the University of California in Berkeley as well as visiting the National Herbarium in Washington, D.C., the New York Botanical Gardens, and the Gray Herbarium at Harvard.

Convinced she needed to add additional data to her growing collection, Eastwood traveled to Europe to check original plant specimens. Since the Academy was financially hard-pressed and no funds were available, she used her savings. At London's Museum of Natural History, she met scientists who knew and respected her work, and she also made important discoveries at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Paris Natural History Museum. On the way back home, Eastwood received the call for which she had been hoping: the California Academy of Sciences had chosen her to rebuild its herbarium. They now had a choice plot of land in Golden Gate Park. In North American Hall, the Academy's new headquarters, Eastwood established a highly popular floral exhibition. Along with its excellent library, the herbarium quickly established itself as a major center of botanical research. From its founding in 1912 to 1949, Alice Eastwood added an astonishing 340,000 specimens to the herbarium, many of which she discovered and named.

With her cheerful personality and immense knowledge of plants and flowers, Eastwood became a key personality in the California horticultural scene, founding and leading several organizations, including the California Botany Club, the California Horticultural Society, and the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association. San Francisco's Businessmen's Garden Club enthusiastically voted her its "Sweet-heart." Convinced that scholarship and public education were two sides of the same coin, Eastwood published a wide variety of articles on cultivated plants for both popular garden magazines and scholarly journals. She was an unchallenged expert on regional plants and flowers, and California nursery workers were often heard to say, "If you do not know what it is, send it to Miss Eastwood."

Continuing to display enormous energy in her 70s and 80s, Alice Eastwood only rarely made concessions to her age. One such came in 1929 when she took on an assistant, John Thomas Howell. Until that time, she alone had taught the Academy's botanical classes. Though at times she accepted riding in an automobile driven by Howell as a substitute for her walking to places to collect specimens, Eastwood always maintained that ideally there was "no way so good for a knowledge of the plants as walking through a region." Despite her great scholarly knowledge and immense prestige in the world of botany, she remained at heart an unpretentious individual who enjoyed reading Henry James novels, the Saturday Evening Post, and mystery stories with equal pleasure. She loved to talk about memorable meals she had eaten, and enjoyed making jellies, preserves and pickles for herself and her many friends.

As Alice Eastwood became the "grand old lady" of the California Academy of Sciences, many honors were heaped upon her. These included a redwood grove in her name at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, a fuchsia named for her, as well as an Alice Eastwood lilac and an Alice Eastwood orchid. A rare California shrub, Eastwoodia elegans, and two botanical genera, Eastwoodia and Aliciella, were all named in her honor. She retired in 1949, at age 90, receiving the title of Curator Emeritus. The next year, 1950, she flew to Sweden to serve as honorary president of the Seventh International Botanical Congress. In a high point of her stay in Stockholm, the tiny, indomitable woman was seated in the chair of the great Linnaeus, the founder of biological nomenclature. Alice Eastwood remained extremely active during the last years of her life, passing on her wide knowledge to the younger generation, including a precocious ten-year-old boy, Peter S. Raven, with whom she compared field notes. Raven went on to become a world-famous botanist, evolutionary biologist, and director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Eastwood continued participating in botanical circles in San Francisco until her death in that city on October 30, 1953.


Bonta, Marcia. "Alice Eastwood," in American Horticulturist. Vol. 62, no. 10. October 1983, pp. 10–15.

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

Jackson, Nancy Beth. "Through Politicking for Plants, He Made His Garden Grow," in The New York Times. August 4, 1998, p. B11.

Moore, Patricia Ann. "Cultivating Science in the Field: Alice Eastwood, Ynes Mexia and California Botany" (Ph.D. Thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 1996).

Nobles, Connie H. "Alice Eastwood (1859–1953), Botanist," in Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara S. Shearer, eds. Notable Women in the Life Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 102–106.

Ross, Michael Elsohn. Flower Watching with Alice Eastwood. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 1997.

Schwartz, Joel S. "Alice Eastwood (1859–1953)," in Louise S. Grinstein et al., eds., Women in the Biological Sciences: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook. West-port, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 124–137.

Smith, Michael L. Pacific Visions: California Scientists and the Environment, 1850–1915. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Warner, Nancy J. "Taking to the Field: Women Naturalists in the Nineteenth-Century West" (M.S. Thesis, Utah State University, 1995).

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

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia