Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Unleashing, Alice Eastwood style

The theme of the next Scientiae carnival is "Unleash." As soon as I saw that word, one woman came to mind: Alice Eastwood, the renowned 19th- and 20th- century botanist (1859-1953) and one of the women featured in my dissertation on women in science. I thought, then, that I would share with you a few snippets about Eastwood from my dissertation so that you might understand why I connect Eastwood with an unleashing--and why I find Eastwood so inspiring. (I call her Eastwood here out of both respect and scholarly convention, but you should know that privately I think of her, with great affection, as Alice.)

Some background: my dissertation largely concerns women scientists working in natural history museums between the 1870s and 1950s. Eastwood was hands down the most famous and skilled of these women.

Women who were fortunate enough to land employment in a highly regarded museum might be reluctant to be seen as troublemakers or, worse, unprofessional in their scientific work if they took too keen an interest in the museum’s public mission, that is, in broadening laypeople’s understanding of science. Women therefore needed to be strategic in the changes they attempted to implement within museum and scientific practice. As part of this process, women scientists of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era for the most part kept a relatively low profile within their institutions—which was easy to do in their half-hidden, basement or attic labs and offices. They invested their energies instead on constructing elaborate networks of scientists, amateurs, and locally influential supporters. While male scientists frequently fostered a culture of competition that celebrated individual achievement within their disciplines, museum women appear to have defined professional success differently. They certainly enjoyed receiving acclaim for their individual work, but instead of focusing solely on the research and publishing that would bring them this attention, many of these women invested a significant amount of energy in outreach activities, which provided alternative rewards in the form of personal and professional support from outside their institutions.

Eastwood, ca. 1910

Botanist Alice Eastwood epitomized this approach. She remains perhaps the most famous of any of the women under consideration here, and for good reason: she endeared herself not only to the scientific community but also to large constituencies of Californian amateur scientists and citizens interested in botany. In so doing, she disseminated scientific ideas to a much broader audience than did her peers, which in turn secured her a broad base of support outside her institution: that of a public increasingly concerned with protecting native species and conserving open space.

Agnes Chase was a fan of Eastwood, who began to curate the botanical collection at the California Academy of Sciences in 1892. On the occasion of Eastwood’s 80th birthday, Chase remembered how Eastwood saved the herbarium’s type specimens from the fire that followed the big San Francisco quake:
I recall how thrilled I was in the spring of 1906 when the men here were all talking about how Alice Eastwood had saved the precious types in the California Academy Herbarium. At that time women were not admitted to the august Botanical Society of Washington, so we rejoiced not only that the types were saved but that you saved them. And not only do we admire your work. Your unfailing kindness and helpfulness to other botanists has endeared you to all of us. (1)
Chase was not Eastwood’s only fan. Over the 60 years of her career, Eastwood gained the appreciation of men and women alike for her professionalism, for her generous outreach, and for her advocacy of the average citizen’s right to enjoy California’s natural landscapes and public parks.

Eastwood was a self-taught botanist, a former schoolteacher recruited by California Academy’s curator of botany, Katharine Brandegee, to take over the Academy’s herbarium. Like Rathbun, Brandegee gave up her own salary in order to hire an assistant; unlike Rathbun, Brandegee hired a woman, which was not entirely surprising, as botany had become feminized, whereas carcinology had not. Brandegee was fortunate to be working in an institution that had encouraged the participation of women from its founding; its constitution, written in 1853, invited women to join the Academy’s endeavors, and the academy was the only scientific organization in the U.S. to hire women as curators—Brandegee being among the first of these to come on board in the 1880s. (2)

It appears Eastwood immediately jumped into her work of expanding the Cal Academy’s botanical collections, both by undertaking expeditions herself throughout California and the American West, but also by creating an ever-broadening network of amateur and professional botanists. She was successful not only because she had become known as an exacting and talented scientist, but also because California’s flora were underrepresented in collections around the world, and scientists elsewhere were eager to get specimens to compare with those already in their collections. (3) In addition to writing countless letters in her first 14 years at the Academy, Eastwood built up the Academy’s collection through hard labor. She wrote to a Smithsonian scientist in 1896, “You can perhaps imagine under what disadvantages I labor, if I tell you that I have no help and I have to do all the poisoning, checking, recording and distributing myself and I have added between 5000 and 10000 plants each year to the herbarium.” (4)

Eastwood on the San Andreas Fault rupture, 1906 - one of my favorite photos ever


While Eastwood had carefully cultivated her contacts through patient correspondence, in 1906 her reputation as a dedicated botanist skyrocketed internationally when, following the big San Francisco quake, she climbed up the banister of a collapsed six-story staircase to rescue the Academy’s botanical type specimens and key documents before the building was destroyed by the fire that followed the quake. She spent the ensuing days shepherding this collection around the city on a wagon, always keeping the specimens ahead of the flames, even as her own home burned to the ground. (5) The story of her courage spread quickly, and within days scientists from institutions around the country were offering to send Eastwood spare specimens to rebuild the herbarium, and in some cases offered her employment until the Academy reopened in a new location. (6) Her heroism, coupled with six years of independent research and collecting while the Academy rebuilt, bolstered her reputation so much that Eastwood predicated her return to the Academy in 1912 upon two conditions: “If they decide to retain me I have to be liberally supported and given a free rein.” (7) Eastwood knew her extensive knowledge and experiences, as well as her popularity in the scientific community, meant she could control the details of her acceptance of the curator’s post. It is also likely that in her journeys, Eastwood saw the relative inflexibility of larger institutions and wanted to ensure her autonomy as the Academy matured as an organization.

Despite the international renown that persisted throughout her life, Eastwood recognized the importance of local and regional amateurs and laypeople to the conservation of California’s natural landscapes. Eastwood went far beyond the calling of the average clubwoman, however; instead of merely appealing to the aesthetic sense of local people, Eastwood insisted that citizens needed to be educated in botany in order to better understand the importance of native as well as cultivated species. (8) Accordingly, she lectured extensively on botanical subjects before clubs of middle-class and affluent men and women, led field trips to explore regional flora, and created the Academy’s first exhibits of fresh flowers. Instead of merely installing herself in the elite professional circles of scientific organizations with elected membership, she joined or participated in botanical groups and related conservation organizations that were open to amateur and lay participation, such as the American Fuchsia Society, the California Spring Blossom and Wild Flower Association, the Business Men’s Garden Club, the San Francisco Garden Club, the Save the Redwoods League, and the California Council for the Protection of Roadside Beauty. (9) She earned accolades for her professional scientific work, but seemed happiest with her local acclaim. In letters to Agnes Chase in the last years of her life, Eastwood bragged, “They call me the gardener’s botanist,” and “the Business Men’s Garden Club call me their sweetheart.” (10)

Women found Eastwood to be especially approachable, both because she was a woman and because she made herself available to aspiring professionals, amateurs, and laypeople. Historian Patricia Ann Moore has hypothesized that Eastwood’s friendliness toward women stemmed from several sources, including nineteenth-century ideas about where it was appropriate for women to exert authority (i.e., as teachers and among other women), a genuine desire to expand physical and intellectual spaces for women in science, a need for able assistants in the herbarium, and the reassurance that women were largely amateurs and thus could not challenge her status as a professional scientist in an era where being a scientist increasingly meant having a formal education. (11) Whatever Eastwood’s motives may have been in cooperating with the flower enthusiasts, these women found her to be sympathetic to their desire to learn about science in an era where women frequently were discouraged from pursuing further education in the sciences. One woman wrote to Eastwood,
They are so fearfully learned and scientific at the [University of California] that it is with great difficult they can get down to us common mortals. While I do not consider, by any means, your learning to be less accurate than theirs, being a woman you do not feel obliged to stay on such heights as a mere man does. (12)
Eastwood had a very good memory, and as a result was able to maintain broad networks of both women and men. She had, according to one colleague, “that rare ability of making people who had met her even once feel as if they had known her for a long time.” (13) Certainly this not only encouraged women amateur botanists to remain in touch with a scientist whose status might otherwise forbid their continued association with her, but also may have opened the hearts and pocketbooks of San Francisco’s elite club women.

Eastwood called upon these women when she felt urban residents’ access to parkland had been threatened by developers. In 1916 she wrote a letter to the women of San Francisco’s California Club, alerting them to the city’s continued efforts to “desecrate” Golden Gate Park through schemes that included the development of commercial buildings and transportation routes throughout the park: “I beg to remind you,” she wrote, “that we are not yet out of the woods and that the determined effort of the real estate men to invade the people’s playground is still, not only a menace, but a real danger.” She portrayed the conflict as a battle “between the people and the speculators who covet their property.” She continued:
The efforts of the San Francisco Chronicle to have the Panama-Pacific Exposition put in Golden Gate Park will be fresh in the minds of the ladies. […] In a recent editorial it is stated that the park contained many excellent building sites. To be sure it does, and they should be kept for the people, as they are, with trees, flowers, grass, and shrubs. A park is not a place for buildings of any kind but should be kept as a place where the people can be and remain in the open air. The nearer it can be made to represent the country to the working dwellers of the city, the nearer it will come to fulfilling its true purpose.

The Mayor and Supervisors will not dare to do these things if they are made to feel that the women will remember and punish them for it. (14)
Here, Eastwood makes clear that she understands the power of women, who in addition to having been socially and economically influential for decades, had just five years earlier won the right to vote in California. While Eastwood felt parks were important to maintaining urban dwellers’ appreciation of more natural landscapes, she strategically appealed to a belief shared by elite, progressive reformers that carefully landscaped public parks exerted a socializing, mainstreaming effect on immigrants and the working class.

Although her outreach may have taken some time away from her research, Eastwood refused to be considered anything less than a first-rate scientist, rebuffing criticism about her methods when she felt vindicated in adopting them. She could justify the sometimes unusual ways she presented science to the public by insisting she had made her decisions based on actual botanical realities rather than on artificial, and therefore to her less valuable, human ideas about scientific standards. Recall Eastwood’s exchange with Joseph Grinnell* over her botanical exhibits at Cal Academy. In this letter, Eastwood not only exuded self-confidence and exerted her authority over her domain, she also expressed a distaste for unnecessary systems—although certainly she was proud of the extensive and reliable systems she had set up in managing the herbarium collections. (15) Like Chase, Eastwood might have chafed in the more restrictive, bureaucratic, systems-bound atmosphere of such Eastern scientific institutions as the Smithsonian.

*When Museum of Vertebrate Zoology director Joseph Grinnell relayed a distinguished professor’s criticism of the mismatched containers used by botanical curator Alice Eastwood in her displays in the California Academy of Sciences, Eastwood responded bluntly:
If I could do it I’d have a different kind of receptacle in color and form for each kind of flower as I abhor uniformity just as nature does. So long as I run that flower show I do it according to my ideas. [….] You know my opinion of the eastern professor, some hide-bound stickler for system where system is not the desirable feature. You need not write to me again on this subject… (16)


Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm not a scientist, and a few may know that I take pleasure in critiquing some of the subcultures of science for their homogeneity and regressive thought. And I don't even have to live within those subcultures. But Alice Eastwood did, and instead of allowing herself to be pinned down by The Man, she used her intellect, charm, and wit (in that order, I believe) to effect real change within the botanical community, both locally and internationally (near the end of her life, she had the pleasure of being invited to sit in Linnaeus's chair).

She also recognized the power of women in influencing local and regional politics, and she appreciated and welcomed the voluntarism of women as amateur botanies. She made scientific knowledge and practice accessible to everyone who showed an interest in botany. She both unleashed science to the public and unleashed women enthusiasts on California botany. I only wish I could have the same effects in my own field, but I have not Eastwood's energy, concentration of intellect, or disciplinary influence (300 papers published in her lifetime, people. 300!).

Still, when people play that game where it's declared you can travel through time to spend a day with anyone from history, the first person who leaps to my mind is Alice. I wish I could have known her and benefited from her knowledge--my tomato bushes still haven't produced any fruit this year--and more importantly from her wisdom.

(If you enjoy reading about women's roles in the history of science, you might also enjoy this post on Smithsonian herpetologist Doris Cochran.)


1: Chase to Alice Eastwood, letter, 29 Dec. 1938, on the occasion of Eastwood’s 80th birthday, SIA Record Unit 229, Division of Grasses, ser. 1, box 2.
2: Michael L. Smith.
Pacific Visions: California Scientists and the Environment, 1850-1915
3: C. S. Sargent [Arnold Arboretum, Harvard] to Eastwood, 12 Mar. 1918, California Academy of Sciences (hereafter CAS), Alice Eastwood papers, box 59, folder “Sargent, C. S.”
4: “Poisoning” plants meant applying chemicals to the specimens as a defense against insect infestation. Alice Eastwood to J.N. Rose, letter, 27 Aug. 1896. SIA Record Unit 221, Division of Plants, ser. 1, box 9, folder “Alice Eastwood.”
5: Carol Green Wilson,
Alice Eastwood’s Wonderland: The Adventures of a Botanist (San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, 1955), 90-96.
6: See Eastwood to J.N. Rose, 5 June 1907, SIA Record Unit 221, Division of Plants, ser. 1, box 9, folder “Alice Eastwood.”
7: Eastwood to Rose, letter fragment (2 pages, page 1 missing), probably ca. mid-1906. SIA Record Unit 221, Division of Plants, ser. 1, box 9, folder “Alice Eastwood.”
8: See Eastwood to Mrs. John O. England, 28 August 1951, CAS archives, Eastwood correspondence, box 44. In this letter, Eastwood writes that since the beginning of her tenure at Cal Academy, “I have done all I could to help in the knowledge of the plants cultivated in our gardens and parks as well as the Native Flora; to foster flower shows, give addresses to garden clubs about flowers, and preach the conservation of our natural resources and the preservation of the beauty of the scenery along the roads and trails.”
9: Eastwood’s papers at the California Academy of Sciences are peppered with correspondence and/or membership cards from these and other organizations.
10: Eastwood to Chase, 1 Jan. 1949, SIA Record Unit 229, Division of Grasses, series 1, box 2; Eastwood to Chase, letter, 2 Feb. 1947, SIA RU 229, series 1, box 2.
11: Patricia Ann Moore, “Cultivating Science in the Field: Alice Eastwood, Yn├ęs Mexia, and California Botany, 1890-1940” (Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 1996), 35-42, 97.
12: Kate C. Cole to Eastwood, 1 June? n.d., CAS archives, Eastwood correspondence, box 45.
13: Robert C. Miller, “Tribute to Alice Eastwood,” speech given at the dedication of the Alice Eastwood Hall of Botany, CAS, 27 Oct. 1959. CAS, Alice Eastwood papers, box 30.
14: Alice Eastwood to the ladies of the California Club in San Francisco, 10 Feb. 1916, CAS, Alice Eastwood papers, box 59, folder “San Francisco.”
15: Eastwood’s distaste for systems may have had deeper roots than merely an spat over how to best classify or exhibit botanical specimens. During Eastwood’s career at Cal Academy, taxonomic botany became associated with amateurs, while the “New Botany,” which came into being in the 1890s, embraced systematics, physiology, and ecology. Eastwood shared its ecological perspective, but her archives show no evidence of her relying on the instrumentation that accompanied the practice of New Botany. Historian Elizabeth Keeney writes that “Unlike field botany, the New Botany required specialized training and equipment, making it inaccessible to many amateurs. Professionals used the New Botany to institutionalize and develop professional autonomy.” (
The Botanizers, 128). Many professional botanists felt threatened by the feminization of their field and may have feared the large number of amateur botanists would forever doom botany to being a low-status science. (The Botanizers, 70, 127). Eastwood, confident in her status as an expert and professional, did not seem to share their fears, and welcomed amateur participation in her collecting and research.
16: Alice Eastwood to Joseph Grinnell, 30 Oct. 1917, CAS archives, Eastwood correspondence, box 49.


1 comment:

Keri said...

Thanks for posting this! Alice Eastwood sounds like an amazing woman and I can see why you are so fascinated by her.

Have you published anything from your dissertation work? I'd love to read more!