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THE REAL DIRT ON: Alice Eastwood: Ardent Conservationist and Explorer

Alice Eastwood, c. 1910.

By Carol Buckley.

Alice Eastwood was a plucky and bright Canadian American who headed the Department of Botany at the preeminent California Academy of Sciences for over 50 years. Born in 1859, her first years were spent on the grounds of a Toronto mental institution where her father worked. Her mother died when Alice was six; shortly thereafter, her father suffered a financial setback and the Eastwood children were dispersed to different homes. Alice lived for two years with an uncle, a physician who taught her the scientific names of plants. Her botanical education was continued by a priest at a convent school where she boarded with her sister. At fourteen, she moved to Denver, where her father, still in financial straits, and brother had settled. While still in high school, she supplemented the family income by substitute teaching and working as a seamstress.

Though valedictorian of her high school class, Alice could not afford to attend university and remained at the school as a teacher for ten years. During this time, she began to read botanical texts, such as Gray’s Manual of Botany, while saving her money to purchase botany books and equipment. Working as a nanny on a ranch in the summer, she rode into the Rockies, becoming familiar with Colorado plants and collecting specimens for her herbarium. Eventually, she covered the Four Corners area of the Old West by horse and railroad.

In 1890, a windfall from a real estate investment Alice had made with her father allowed her to travel to southern California. Her collection grew to become so large and diverse, including cacti from Utah, that it drew the attention of Mary Katharine Brandegee, curator of the Botany Department at the California Academy of Sciences, who was so impressed that she offered Alice a position as assistant curator of the Academy's herbarium. Upon Brandegee’s retirement in 1894, Alice became department head.

In 1906, San Francisco was ablaze in the aftermath of the earthquake. Alice, who lived nearby, left her own endangered home and ran to the Academy, which was on Market Street at that time. Tearing up the steps with volunteers she had recruited, she was able to get to the room where the Academy’s herbarium was kept. In a brilliant and unorthodox way, she had previously separated the hundreds of type specimens (those from which others were drawn) from the rest of the collection, so she was at this moment able to choose those and get out of the burning Academy alive.

While the new Academy was being constructed in Golden Gate Park, Alice traveled to botanical institutions on the East Coast and in Europe to study herbaria. Once she returned to the Academy in 1912, she did not cease her explorations. Her wanderings extended from the deserts of Arizona to the meadows and mountains of Alaska. Her goal was to rebuild the Academy collection, and in her lifetime she nearly tripled the number of specimens that had existed before the fire.

Aliciella caespitosa belongs to one of the genera named after Alice Eastwood.

Alice received many honors up into her last years, journeying at age 90 to Stockholm, Sweden, to accept an award from the Seventh International Botanical Congress. She built up the field of botany, writing over 300 articles and papers and publishing books and journals. She also liked to write about garden plants—she was a founder of the American Fuchsia Society in 1929—and sought to popularize botany by displaying bouquets of native flowers around the Academy and using Golden Gate gardens to teach botany to the public, becoming known as the gardener’s botanist. An ardent conservationist, the Alice Eastwood Memorial Grove in Humboldt County was named in honor of her efforts to save the redwoods there.

Alice was a colleague of Kate Sessions, who said, “Our friendship developed through flowers—our children, which I am growing, and she is naming.” Seventeen species of plants and two genera are named for Alice, who passed away from cancer at age 94 in 1953.

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