Important Figures in the History of Natural History: Alice Eastwood, Patron of Collections

Alice Eastwood was a Canadian botanist born in 1859, who moved to Denver with her family in 1873 and taught there for several years. A self-trained botanist, her expertise was so well-known and regarded that she was invited to serve as a guide to Alfred Russell Wallace and help him summit Grays Peak, near Denver, to view alpine flora and fauna. Her reputation led her to be hired at the California Academy of Sciences in 1891 to assist with the Academy’s Herbarium.

Founded in 1853, the California Academy of Sciences collection was originally housed in a notary office, then moved to a portion of an abandoned church that had been converted into a museum. The collection had experienced haphazard growth over the years, as there was no collected focus on acquiring specimens (a lesson for museums today on the need for organized and focused collecting efforts).

The collection experienced a major setback in 1906 with the Great San Francisco Earthquake. The earthquake and resulting fires destroyed the museum along with many of the collections. Despite the dangers, Alice Eastwood ran into the rubble to save type specimens. She managed to save portions of the bird, mammal, and botanical collections, as well as some portions of the entomological collections, including Coleoptera and Hymenoptera.

Alice Eastwood. Photo from the California Academy of Sciences (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

Over the rest of her career, Alice Eastwood published over 300 articles and described 395 new species, making her one of the most prolific women scientists to study terrestrial plants (Lindon et. al 2015). Today, her notes and specimens are still housed at the California Academy of Sciences (the newest building, completed in 2008, has multiple systems in place for safeguarding the collections against fires and earthquakes).

Eastwood’s picture can be found hanging in more than one office at the California Academy of Sciences, still watching over the daily operations of the collection. If there were a patron saint of museum collections, Alice Eastwood would be it.

 

References

Lindon, Heather L., Lauren M. Gardiner, Abigail Brady, and Maria S. Vorontsova. “Fewer than three percent of land plant species named by women: Author gender over 260 years.” Taxon 64, no. 2 (2015): 209-215. https://doi.org/10.12705/642.4

Special thanks to Deb Trock, Chris Grinter, and to those who ran the 2018 Entomological Collections Management workshop, where I learned about the history of the CAS collections and Alice Eastwood’s roles in preserving them.

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