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The Joy of Collecting – Alice Eastwood (1859 -1953)

When Alice Eastwood first visited the California Academy of Sciences in 1891, she arrived unannounced ready to consult with renowned botanist Townsend Brandegee. It was a fortuitous visit, and Alice’s drive and skill must have been evident: she was offered employment at the Academy soon after, later taking up the role of Curator of Botany, which she held until her retirement at 90 years of age.

As the longevity of her career suggests, Alice Eastwood was an irrepressible character. She was an intrepid collector who explored remote parts of the western United States, collecting specimens to build the Academy’s collection as well as duplicates to trade with other herbaria. Her collecting efforts are now represented in herbaria around the world, including the National Herbarium of Victoria, where staff curate and database her specimens as part of the Foreign Collection Project.

In addition to her botanical expertise, Alice Eastwood is remembered for her remarkable efforts to save the Academy’s collection of type specimens following the 1906 earthquake, a feat made possible by her foresight and preparation. Although disaster preparedness is an important aspect of contemporary collections management, Alice's practice of separating the type specimens from the rest of the herbarium went against curatorial practice at the time. But hers was a valuable departure from the norm: in a damaged building that would be deemed unfit to enter by contemporary safety standards – and with fire approaching – Alice was able to locate and move the type specimens to safety. Although the rest of the herbarium collection was lost in the fire, its immediate future couldn’t have been in better hands: by the time Alice retired, the Academy’s botany collection numbered about 340,000 specimens – almost three times as many as were lost in the 1906 fire.

Alice’s dedication to botany was complete; as well as devoting her lifetime to it, she was generous with her means, spending much of her personal income on books for the Academy’s library and on employing assistants to further the development of the herbarium. She was generous of spirit too. In a letter describing the losses of the Academy’s collection in 1906, she wrote ‘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’.

As well as 17 currently recognised species that bear her name, Alice Eastwood is commemorated in the genera Aliciella and Eastwoodia. When naming the genus Aliciella, German botanist August Brand wrote: ‘I gladly take the opportunity to pay tribute to this lady, who has earned a high reputation for botanical science, for the kindness with which she has supported me in my scientific endeavours by sending literature and plant material’.

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