The Most Accomplished Of Her Time

The Most Accomplished Of Her Time

Written on 06/04/2019

Ynes Mexia is a Mexican-American social worker, botanical collector, and explorer. Her interest in botany developed in San Francisco, where she moved in 1908 and practiced as a social worker. She joined the Sierra Club and at the age of 51 enrolled as a special undergraduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1925 she participated in a botanical expedition to Mexico sponsored by Stanford University. Once in Mexico, however, she decided she could accomplish more on her own; abandoning the group, she traveled the country for two years and collected more than 1,500 specimens, which she sent to the herbarium at Berkeley. Her success in Mexico assured her reputation.

In 1928 she was hired to collect plants in Alaska. The next year she went to South America and traveled by canoe down the Amazon River, covering 4,800 kilometers in two and a half years to its source in the Andes. She made another expedition to South America from 1934 to 1936 and another to Mexico from 1936 to 1938. During this last expedition, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died within a few months. In merely 13 years, she collected 8,800 numbers or more than 145,000 specimens. They include two new genera, Mexianthus Robinson (Asteraceae) and Spulula Mains (Pucciniaceae), and about 500 new species, 50 of which are named after her.

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.


"Her collections are still being analyzed and the final total of species and genera she discovered is apparently still not known..."

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