• Sara Thompson

A Pioneer for Women in STEM


Sketches of flowers
ink drawing of Begonia ynesiae, one of many plants collected, sketched, and named after Ynes Mexia.

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise


Ynes Mexia accomplished much in her 13-year career as a botanist. Many of the specimens she collected are still on display at institutions such as UC Berkeley, the California Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Arboretum, the Smithsonian Institution, and more. She worked hard and achieved much, despite the challenges she faced.


Mexia was born in Washington, D.C. in 1870. She moved around with her family for much of her early life, eventually moving to Mexico to live with her father in her late teens. For several years she helped him run the family ranch and contributed to its success. Her first husband passed away a few years after their marriage, and her second marriage ended in divorce when her husband bankrupts the family business and ranch. In 1909, she moved to San Francisco in search of medical care for some mental health challenges she had been suffering. This would be a turning point in her life.


During the years of her medical care, she would go on hikes and excursions with the Sierra Club and would become one of their early members. Her interest in the Northern California ecology would grow over the years and she would become a huge advocate for the environment and conservation efforts. In 1921, at age 51, Mexia would attend UC Berkeley and further develop her love for ecology and botany.


In 1925, she joined a group heading to Mexico for a collection trip. On this trip she would often break away from the group and collect independently, preferring to work alone. On this first collection trip she would collect over 1,500 specimens, many of which are still viewed today in museums and teaching collections.


Over the next 13 years she would go on several excursions and collect botanical samples and specimens from both North and South America. She was the first botanist to collect plants from Alaska, in what is now Denali National Park. She also took a two and a half year research trip canoeing the Amazon and collecting plants. She traveled to the northern most parts of Alaska, and to the southernmost tip of South America, and most everywhere in between. She passed away in 1938, at the age of 68 from lung cancer.


During her career, Mexia had to battle racism, sexism, and ageism. She was strong and brave, and fought for herself and her career, and for what she believed in, during a time when most women were not listened to. She was pivotal in conservation efforts of the redwood forests in Northern California. She is an inspiration to women and proves that no matter your background you can pursue your dream, at any age.


Campers in this week’s Need for Seeds camp looked at various plants and seeds up-close and made observations and sketches. They learned how important plants are to the environment, animals and insects, and to us. Spaces are still available in our after-school camps. Camps will be Monday-Friday from 2:30-4:30pm for students in grades K-6. Price is $120 Members/$145 Non-Members. Additional information and registration can be found at https://www.explorit.org/camps.



Explorit's coming events:


• Due to COVID-19 restrictions and the health and safety of our staff and visitors, our gallery will remain closed. Staff regularly check messages and email.


• Like many small businesses the closures have had a significant impact on our income and sustainability. Now is a great time to donate and help Explorit continue to educate and inspire the scientists of tomorrow: https://www.explorit.org/donate.


• Continue to support Explorit during this uncertain time by becoming a member. An Exploit Membership not only support us but grants the recipient with free visits to Explorit’s regular public hours, discounts on events, summer and after-school camps, and workshops, and gives you ASTC benefits to visit other museums throughout the world. For more information visit https://www.explorit.org/membership or call Explorit at 530-756-0191.