Mexia, Ynes (1870–1938)

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Mexia, Ynes (1870–1938)

Mexican-American botanical explorer whose research expeditions contributed greatly to the modern scientific classification of plants of the Americas. Name variations: Ynez Mexia. Born Ynes Enriquetta Julietta Mexia on May 24, 1870, in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.; died of lung cancer on July 12, 1938, in Berkeley, California; daughter of Enrique Antonio Mexia (a diplomat) and Sarah R. (Wilmer) Mexia; attended the University of California, 1921–37; married Herman E. de Laue, around 1898 (died 1904); married Augustin A. de Raygados, in 1907 (marriage ended c. 1908); no children.

Moved to San Francisco (1908); made first botanical expedition to collect plants (c. 1925); traveled to South America (1929–32).

Though Ynes Mexia spent little more than a decade as a working botanist, her expeditions and research remain integral to the scientific classification of thousands of plants indigenous to the Western hemisphere. Mexia was born in 1870 in Washington, D.C. Her mother's family was of Maryland Catholic heritage, and her father was said to have been a diplomat for the Mexican government in Washington; his father, in turn, had been the founder of Mexico's Federalist Party. A town in Texas' Limestone County was once their family land, and bears the family name. Mexia moved to Philadelphia as a teenager, and went to private schools there and in Ontario and Maryland. She considered entering a convent, but her father's will stipulated that she would be disinherited if she did. Around 1898, she wed Herman E. de Laue, a merchant in Mexico City. She then, after the death of her father, suffered through a contentious legal battle over his will, facing her father's mistress and illegitimate heir in court. De Laue died around 1904, and a few years later Mexia married Augustin A. de Raygados, an apparently disastrous choice for a partner. Marital stress led her to a nervous breakdown, and she moved to San Francisco to recuperate. He died soon after.

In San Francisco, Mexia became involved in social work, and also found physical and spiritual restoration through Sierra Club hikes in the area. While taking classes at the University of California in 1921 (which she would continue intermittently for the next 16 years), she began to develop a great interest in botany. A 1925 summer course at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove led her to pursue it decisively, and shortly thereafter, in the company of a botanist from Stanford University, Roxana Stinchfeld Ferris , she made her first trip to Mexico to categorize plants. Though Mexia was injured in a fall, she soldiered on and brought back 500 plants, one of which, Mimosa mexiae, was named after her. She then began working with a curator at the University of California Herbarium who helped her arrange travel and sales of plants to other institutions to finance her expeditions. Although she never earned a science degree, Mexia quickly emerged as a born plant researcher. In particular, she learned how to dry her specimens—which were usually accustomed to the damp of the Mesoamerican rain forest—for transport, so that she lost very few along the way in her journeys. (Her first instructor in specimen preservation had been botanist Alice Eastwood .) After a 1928 trip to Alaska's Mt. McKinley, in late 1929 Mexia embarked upon her most ambitious expedition, to South America. The trip involved 25,000 miles up the Amazon River on a steamship, then travel by canoe for another 5,000 miles; for one leg of it, she also got around on a balsa raft made for her by her guides. She returned to San Francisco in 1932 with over 65,000 specimens, mainly from Brazil and Peru. The Sierra Club Bulletin published her accounts of this trip.

Mexia appears to have loved her dangerous and isolated calling, during the course of which she often came into contact with poisonous plants and underwent the most arduous and comfortless of journeys. Her work was greatly valued by her contemporaries, since it clarified problems and errors of prior, and sometimes slipshod, research. For a time Mexia worked for the Ecuadoran government, and in 1935 joined a University of California botanical expedition on another months-long trip to South America, this time to the Andes mountain region. At age 65, she proved an invaluable companion to her younger, more inexperienced colleagues. In the spring of 1938, Mexia came down with intestinal problems during a collecting trip to Mexico and returned to San Francisco, where she died of lung cancer that July.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Edgerly, Lois, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.


Ynes Mexia's papers are held at the University and Jepson Herbaria at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Botany Gray Herbarium at Harvard University.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan