Born in Washington D.C. while her parents were visiting the country as her father was a diplomat from Mexico, Ynes Mexia lived with her mother in America after her parents separated a few years later.After finishing her secondary schooling she moved to Mexico to live with her father until his death in 1896. Moving to San Francisco she found a job as a social worker and motivated by trips she had taken with the Sierra Club she enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley though she never earned a degree.
Instead, starting with a trip to western Mexico in 1925 to collect botanical samples she began her career as botanist at the age of 55. On this first of many expeditions she fell off a cliff, was injured and the trip had to be prematurely halted. The trip still yielded 500 specimens that included several new species including the first to be named after her the Mimosa mexiae.
For the next twelve years she traveled to many places including South America, southwestern Mexico, and Mount McKinley in Alaska. She discovered a new genus, Mexianthus, part of the sunflower family, and many new species among her approximately 150,000 total samples.
One of these expeditions included traveling to the source of the Amazon River with a guide and only three others in a canoe over a span of two and a half years; another had her spending three months living with a native group in the Amazon. Stories about her travels were published by the Audubon Society of the Pacific, the Sierra Club, and in the journal of the California Botanical Society.
Mexia passed away in 1938 from lung cancer, but her massive collection of specimens and the discovery of two new Genera of plants gave her a feeling of immortality and she was pleased when plants were named in her honor. Specimens from her trips were stored in the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and photographs of her travels are being preserved by The California Academy of Sciences.
Written by Angela Goad