A Bay of Botany: Alice Eastwood’s Nine Decades and Three Hundred Thousand Specimens

Read the full story at Women You Should Know.

April 18, 1906, and Alice Eastwood’s lunch bag hangs casually from a mastodon’s tusk while outside, a proud city burns. It is the morning of the great San Francisco earthquake and Eastwood’s first response is not to secure the protection of her own home and valuables, but to run to the Academy of Sciences, where she is the curator of botany, and work against the growing blaze to save the treasure trove of specimens she has spent her life collecting and organizing for the institution. The marble stairway leading to the botanical work rooms is broken, so, after hanging up her lunch on the nearest prehistoric creature, she pulls herself hand over hand up the remaining bronze banister, finally reaching the top and dashing to her office, making split decisions about what can be saved and what must be sacrificed while from the window she can see an unstoppable wall of fire slowly crunching down upon the Academy.

Wrapping up samples from century-old collections, the forty-seven year old curator and Western flora expert rushes up and down the banister organizing the rescue efforts, hiring carts to bring the scientific treasures up the hill and away from harm, bossing around the police who try and fail to prevent her re-entering the endangered building, and keeping her Zeiss lens firmly in her pocket as the one object in the world she absolutely, positively cannot be without. When fire finally ravages the Academy, and eventually her private home as well, she takes solace in having saved 1,497 crucial specimens even as her booklover’s heart aches at the thought of the Academy’s priceless collection of rare scientific texts, now nothing more than ashes on the wind.

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