STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Today’s Woman in STEM mainly worked in the Science category.
March is Women’s History month so even more of a reason to celebrate the female trailblazers in STEM. Our second Woman in STEM that we will learn about is Ynés Enriquetta Julietta Mexía (May 24 1870 – July 12, 1938). She was a Mexican-American that started a botany career in her 50s. She had a 13-year career where she collected over 500 new plant species across North America, Central America, and South America (1).
Ynés was born on May 24, 1870 in Washington D.C., USA. Her father Enrique A. Mexíca was a Mexican diplomate. Her mother Sarah R. Wilmer came from a wealthy family in the USA (1,2,3). In 1873, when Mary was only 3 years old, her parents separated. Her Father went back to Mexico City, Mexico where he owned a ranch. Around the same time Ynés and her mother moved to Texas, USA (1,2). Since both her mother and father had prominence and wealth, they assured that Ynés received a quality education at private schools (3).
There is not a lot of information on what Ynés did right after finishing grammar school but in 1887, when Ynés was 27 years old, she moved to Mexico City, Mexico. Here she worked on her father’s ranch, and eventually managed it, after her father passed away. The same year that Ynés moved to Mexico City she married her first husband: a Spanish-German merchant. He unexpectedly died only 7 years later, in 1904 (1,2). She soon remarried a Mexican rancher (1).
San Francisco (Be Sure To Study Flowers Out There)
After struggling with mental health issues, in 1909, at 39 year old, Ynés left Mexico and her second husband. She moved to San Francisco, California, USA to recover (1,2). She eventually divorced her second husband and decided to stay in San Francisco and work in social work (1).
It was during this time in San Francisco that Ynés discovered her passion for environmentalism (2). In 1920, at 50 years old Ynés joined Save the Redwoods League and the Sierra Club as one of their prominent pioneer members (1,2). Through the Sierra Club and Save the Redwoods League she traveled throughout California and became very active in the efforts to save the Redwoods from being clearcut. She also was a pioneer for the national park conservation movement (3).
In 1921 at 51 years old, Ynés’ passion with the Sierra Club and Save the Redwoods League led her to enroll as a Natural Science student at the University of California: Berkley (1,2,3). While attending UC Berkley she learned how to collect, categorizes, and conduct botany field work (2). Ynés benefited significantly from her wealthy upbringing throughout much of her life, but more so in her environmental pursuits. Her inheritance is what allowed her to pursue her botany career since she self-funded her university schooling and most of her collection trips (3).
In 1922 Ynés went on her first plant collection trip to Mexico through her UC Berkely studies (1,3). In 1925 Ynés went on another academic collection trip, this one was memorable for her in many ways. First, she learned that she preferred to collect alone instead of with a group, this defined much of her future collection trips. Second, she fell and injured her hand and fractured several ribs so she was not able continue collecting during this trip. Third, despite her trip being cut short, she collected over 500 plant specimens, 50 of which were newly identified species (1,3). Fourth, one of the newly identified species she collected was named after her: Mimosa mexiae (3). This was the first of many plants named after her (1).
Overall, Ynés had a 13-year career. She continued to make collect trips to Mexico as well as Central America, South America, Denali National Park in Alaska, USA, and the Sierra Nevada in California and Nevada, USA (2,3). Her collection trip in Denali was one of the first ever documented scientific botany collections completed in that area (3).
Although Ynes was an avid plant collector and detailed field note taker, she didn’t handle the plants after collection. Rather her friend and colleague Nina Floy Bracelin “Bracie”, another woman in STEM, curated most of the plants from Ynes’ expeditions (3,4). Curating includes preserving, identifying and cataloguing each specimen. Ynés had collected so many plants that it took years after her death for Bracie to organize all Ynés’ field notes, identify each specimen, and hand write the display labels for each specimen (5).
Death and Beyond
On July 12, 1938, at age 68 Ynés died after a battle with lung cancer (2). Bracie had stayed by Ynés side as she battled cancer and was with her as she passed (5). In her death Ynés left $3,000 to the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) specifically to employ Bracie so she could continue curating Ynés’ plant specimens. Bracie was paid approximately $1,000 a year and when this money ran out, there were still a lot of plant specimens left to identify. While Bracie eventually moved on to other employment, she continued to work at CAS on the nights and weekends to identify Ynés’ specimens (5).
In addition to the $3,000 Ynés left to CAS to employee Bracie, Ynés also left a large amount of money to the Sierra Club and the Save the Redwoods League. Some of this money allowed for the purchase of Fern Canyon, now part of the Redwoods State Park (3). Throughout her career Ynés collected over 145,000 plant specimens. Of these collected specimens, 500 were newly identified species. Of these newly identified species, 50 were named after her, including the genus Mexianthus (1). She was a pioneer and a trailblazer, not only for the specimens she collected but also in her fight to preserve the Redwood Forest in Northern California (2) and as a women of color in her 50s traveling alone all across the Americas in the 1920s and 1930s. Many during that time period believed that a women shouldn’t travel alone, especially a woman of color. Ynés instead said: “I don’t think there is any place in the world where a woman can’t venture.”
See the list of all the scientists in this Women in STEM series here
- “Ynés Mexía (Mexican – American Plant Collector)” (On-line) Biodiversity Library Exhibition: Latino Natural History. Accessed in 2023 at http://latinonaturalhistory.biodiversityexhibition.com/en/card/ynes-mexia.
- “Person: Ynés Mexía” (On-line) National Park Service: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument. Accessed in 2023 at https://www.nps.gov/people/ynes-mexia.htm.
- Montana, K. “Untold Stories: Ynés Mexía” (On-line) California Academy of Sciences. Accessed in 2023 at https://www.calacademy.org/scientists/library/untold-stories/ynes-mexia.
- Lubensky, Z. and Santana-Juarez, H. “Untold Stories: Nina Fly Perry Bracelin” (On-line) California Academy of Sciences. Accessed in 2023 at https://www.calacademy.org/scientists/library/untold-stories/nina-floy-bracelin.
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