Walcott, Mary Morris (1860–1940)

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Walcott, Mary Morris (1860–1940)

American artist and naturalist . Born Mary Morris Vaux on July 31, 1860, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died of a heart attack on August 22, 1940, in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada; daughter of George Vaux and Sarah Humphreys (Morris) Vaux; graduated from the Friends Select School of Philadelphia, 1879; married Charles Doolittle Walcott (secretary of the Smithsonian Institution), on June 30, 1914 (died 1927).

Became first woman to climb Mount Stephen (1900); moved to Washington, D.C., upon marriage (1914); published her wildflower paintings in North American Wild Flowers (1925); joined the Society of Woman Geographers (1926) and was elected national president of the Society (1933); appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to her deceased brother's seat on the Board of Indian Commissioners (1927); contributed paintings to Illustrations of North American Pitcher Plants (1935).

Mary Morris Walcott was the eldest of three children raised in a prominent Pennsylvania Quaker family who spent many of their summers in the mountains of the Canadian west. Her

brother, George Vaux, Jr., became a well-respected Philadelphia attorney and later was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners, a post Walcott herself would assume following George's death. After her mother Sarah Humphreys Vaux died in 1879, Walcott was left to manage both the household and the family dairy farm.

Walcott developed gradually into an amateur naturalist and painter. Over the summers in the Canadian Rockies, she became interested in glaciers through her uncle, an amateur mineralogist. After 1887, she began spending almost every summer in western Canada and became an avid mountaineer. Walcott had displayed artistic talent since childhood and often painted landscapes. After a botanist in British Columbia asked her to paint a rare alpine flower, she began focusing her painting on wildflowers, and always took her watercolors along on her mountain treks. In Philadelphia, her family was active in the Academy of Natural Sciences.

In 1900, at age 40, the independent Walcott became the first woman to scale Mt. Stephen in British Columbia. In 1913, at 53, she met the man she would marry—64-year-old Charles D. Walcott, a geologist and paleontologist who was secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The Walcotts continued to spend summers in western Canada and led a busy public and social life in Washington. Mary Walcott assisted Charles on various projects while continuing her painting, and in 1925 the Smithsonian published a five-volume limited edition collection of 400 of her wildflower watercolors. The successful publication was praised for its quality of bookmaking and color printing, and prompted some to call her the "Audubon" of American wildflowers.

Walcott joined the Society of Woman Geographers the following year and later served two terms as its elected president. She was appointed to fill her brother's seat on the Board of Indian Commissioners after his death in 1927, was reappointed by President Herbert Hoover, and served there until 1932. She was active throughout her life in the Society of Friends, and was a major force behind the building of the Florida Avenue Friends Meeting House in Washington, D.C. At 75, she contributed 15 paintings to another Smithsonian botanical publication, and it is reported that she spent her 77th birthday riding 20 miles in the mountains.

Mary Walcott died at age 80 in New Brunswick, Canada. Her estate was added to the scientific support fund her late husband Charles had created, and as she had contributed much to the public awareness of botanical research, the income from her published works went to establish the Mary Walcott Fund for Publications in Botany. In British Columbia, Canada, a mountain reaching to 10,881 feet fittingly carries the maiden name of the tall, graceful, and strong-willed woman who loved the mountains and the flowers that covered them in summer.


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

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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