“In all my travels I’ve never been attacked by a wild animal, lost my way or caught a disease… I don’t think there’s any place in the world where a woman can’t venture.”– Ynés Mexía
Ynés Mexía’s Story
Ynés Enriquetta Julietta Mexía was born on May 24, 1870, in Washington D.C., where her father, Enrique Mexía, was a Mexican diplomat. A year later, they moved to Mexia, Texas, a town founded by her ancestors. In 1879, after her parents separated, Mexía was sent to a boarding school where she felt isolated and lonely. After completing her studies, she considered entering a convent, but her father asked her to supervise his ranch and household in Mexico. In 1896, her father died, and Mexía stayed in Mexico managing his businesses.
In 1909, after two troubled marriages, she developed a mental and physical illness, then called a “nervous breakdown,” and her physician in Mexico advised her to seek medical help from the noted psychiatrist, Phillip King Brown. Mexía moved to San Francisco, California, and was under Dr. Brown’s care for 10 years. Following his encouragement, she joined the Save the Redwoods League and the Sierra Club, and became an active member of the early environmental movement in California. She participated in hiking and camping trips in the National Parks, and developed a deep interest in plants and nature.
In 1921, at age 51, Mexía enrolled at University of California Berkeley, where she took classes in science and natural history and attended a university expedition where she was introduced to botany, the study of plants. In 1925, Mexía was invited on her first plant collecting trip to Sinaloa, Mexico, on a group expedition sponsored by Stanford University. Mexía soon realized she would be more productive on her own, and secured funding from other institutions and ventured alone with local guides into Mazatlán and the Sierra Madre Mountains. Mexía continued to explore and collect plants in little-visited regions of North and South America, including Mt. McKinley National Park in Alaska, as well as in Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Tierra del Fuego in Argentina.
In a 13-year career, Mexía collected more than 145,000 plant specimens and discovered 500 new species, of which several are named in her honor. In 1938, on her last expedition in Mexico, she became sick and was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died on July 12, 1938. Mexía is recognized as one of the most accomplished and prolific female botanists of her time, demonstrating that there is no age limit to pursuing your life’s passions.
Featured in the Film
Durlynn Anema, PhD, is an author who has written over 15 books including biographies featuring women explorers of the early and mid twentieth century including, Harriet Chalmers Adams: Adventurer and Explorer; Louise Arner Boyd: Arctic Explorer; and Ynes Mexia: Botanist and Adventurer. Mexía is also featured in Anema’s latest biography, The Perfect Specimen: The 20th Century Renown Botanical Collector – Ynes Mexia.
Ina Vandebroek, PhD, is the Matthew Calbraith Perry Associate Curator, and Caribbean Program Director at The New York Botanical Garden. She has conducted ethnobotanical research and outreach for 20 years, studying the relationships between plant diversity, traditional knowledge, and community livelihood and well-being, working in collaboration with indigenous and farming communities in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and New York City. Her research underscores the importance of plants for the preservation of cultural heritage. In New York City, Vandebroek uses the results of her research partnerships with Caribbean and Latino communities to develop training activities for medical students and health providers, to help promote culturally sensitive healthcare. Vandebroek is also an Adjunct Lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences.
Ynés Enriquetta Julietta Mexía was born
IN HISTORY - 1872
Yellowstone became the first National Park
Mexía moved to Mexico
Mexía became sole heir of her father’s estate
Mexía married again, to Augustin de Reygadas
Mexía separated from her second husband
Mexía joined the budding environmental movement
Mexía enrolled at UC Berkeley
Mexía regained American citizenship
Mexía continued her trip in Mexico by herself
Mexía traveled to Alaska
1929 - 1932
Brazil and Peru Expedition
1935 - 1937
Mexía’s expedition to South America
Mexía was diagnosed with lung cancer
Mexía Memorial Grove established at Montgomery Woods, CA
National Parks today