Botanist Alice Eastwood: a snapshot biography

Biography

Born in Toronto, Canada in 1859, Alice Eastwood experienced loss and much struggle in her youth, beginning with the passing of her mother when Alice was six years old. Her father, experiencing financial hardship and unable to care for his children, sent Alice to live with other family members and then to a convent.

Vintage sepia-toned photograph of Alice Eastwood, a botanist, circa early 20th century. She is pictured with a content expression, wearing a wide-brimmed hat adorned with flowers and a light-colored scarf tied in a large bow under her chin. She is dressed in a dark blouse with a high collar, indicative of the period's fashion.
Alice Eastwood

At fourteen, she moved back in with her father, now living in Denver. There, she attended high school, graduating as the valedictorian of her class.

Without the means to attend college, Alice became a teacher at her alma mater. But in her spare time, she explored botany, a love that developed from her time living with an uncle and from a priest at the convent, both of whom were amateur botanists. She studied botany manuals, collected samples, and set up exhibitions. 

Alice’s knowledge led to opportunities, and in the early 1890s, after her collection was reviewed by the Curator of the Botany Department at the California Academy of Sciences, she accepted a job offer from the museum. Shortly after, in 1894, Alice became Head of the Department of Botany.

Years later, as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake wreaked havoc on the city, causing buildings to collapse and fires to start, Alice ignored her personal belongings and rushed from home to save what she could at the herbarium. While many items were damaged or lost, she and a colleague saved nearly 1,500 specimens of plants and numerous books from the building. Alice wrote about the experience,

“I do not feel the loss to be mine, but it is a great loss to the scientific world and an irreparable loss to California. My own destroyed work I do not lament, for it was a joy to me while I did it, and I can still have the same joy in starting it again.”

After the earthquake, she spent time traveling and researching at other institutions in the U.S. and Europe. She returned to the Botany Department when the California Academy of Sciences re-opened in 1912, where she stayed until retiring in 1949. During these years, she led the effort to add 340,000 specimens to the herbarium.

Alice passed away in 1954 at the age of 93. Shortly before passing away, she wrote, “I count my age by my friends, and I am rich in friends.”

Notes:

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Click here to read a snapshot biography of another botanist, Beatrix Ferrand.

This story was updated on February 8, 2024.

“A snapshot biography of botanist Alice Eastwood” sources: