Botanist Ynés Mexía traveled throughout North and South America collecting 145,000 plant specimens and identifying 50 new species of plants. As a Mexican-American woman who started her career at age 51, she traveled between Alaska and the tip of South America to identify and collect plants. She made lasting contributions to the scientific study of plants and achieved professional success in a male-dominated field during the early 20th century — a time marked with even more racism, sexism and ageism than today. She defied the status quo and set new precedents for female pioneers.
A Hardy Upbringing and a Critical Turning Point
Mexía brought a unique perspective to botany, entering the field with a sense of adventure and an unconventional path to science. According to PBS, Ynés Enriquetta Julietta Mexía was born in 1870 in Washington, DC. Her father, a Mexican diplomat, and her American mother separated when she was very young, and she spent her childhood moving several times and attending a private boarding school. As a shy child, she was often alone. When she finished school, she considered entering a convent, but her ailing father asked her to take over the successful family ranch in Mexico. She married twice; her first husband died, and the second one bankrupted her family business.
After her second husband ruined the ranch, she divorced him and suffered a mental breakdown. She then moved to San Francisco to seek medical help from Dr. Phillip King Brown, a psychiatrist who encouraged her to join California’s budding environmental movement. There, she started to explore nature with the Sierra Club and the Save the Redwoods League. In 1921, at age 51, she enrolled in science and natural history courses at University of California, Berkeley, and truly developed her passion and aptitude for botany.
A Condensed Career
Despite her late start and the widespread barriers for women of color, she quickly rose to become a prominent botanist. Her career started to take off in 1925 when she joined a Stanford University expedition to Mexico. Convinced she would accomplish more while working independently, she split from the group and continued traveling for two years. During this time, she sent more than 1,500 specimens to the herbarium at Berkeley, according to JSTOR.
Her career continued to flourish with treks to Alaska, the Amazon River, the Andes and Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago at the southern tip of South America. She traveled by foot, horseback and canoe, and often traveled solo or with a few Indigenous guides, according to the National Park Service (NPS). While collecting rare species of plants from all over North and South America, she also advocated for protecting natural resources and the rights of indigenous people. Mexía was a true adventure seeker who defied stereotypes. She would spend months in the field, often sleeping outdoors by choice.
One of the Greatest Female Pioneers
In an era when women were expected to stay home and take care of their children and husbands, Mexía traveled to remote locations for scientific exploration. Her career peaked during the 1920s and 1930s — a time marked by anti-Mexican discrimination and the deportation of 2 million people of Mexican descent, including many people who, like Mexía, were American citizens, according to History.com.
In her 13-year career, she collected more than 145,000 specimens. She discovered two new genera, Mexianthus Robinson (Asteraceae) and Spulula Mains (Pucciniaceae), and about 500 new species, 50 of which are named after her, according to JSTOR.
In 1938, she became sick while on an expedition in Mexico. She cut the trip short and died of lung cancer a few months later at age 68. She left her estate to the organizations that inspired her career — the Sierra Club and the Save The Redwoods League. Her discoveries and plant specimens are still used by scientists today.
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