Bold, Bodacious Babes of Botany


Sept. 29, 2016: In my continuing homage to women botanists, one of the most boldest was Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe AND ,since she did it dressed as a man, she was the first cross-dressing woman botanist to do so. Those are some notable firsts.

Jeanne was born into an impoverished family in the south of France in 1740. In her early years, she Jeanne as JeanJeanne as Jeandeveloped a knowledge of medicinal plants and collected herbs as a living. When in her early twenties, a job opened up as a housekeeper to a young nobleman, Philibert de Commerson, whose friends might have called him "Phil" for short and that's what I'm going to do. Phil was an amateur botanist and also a recent widower. What with being in the same house and a mutual interest in plants, Jeanne and Phil became an "item". Back in those days though, noblepeople didn't marry their housekeepers so Jeanne became Phil's mistress, collecting assistant, and nurse, for Phil was often not in prime health.

Several years into their relationship, the French government called on Phil to accompany an expedition being led around the world to expand French holdings. as their ship botanist. "De Comm", whose friends might have called him that too and that's what I'm going to do for variety sake, was reluctant to go without his sidekick, Jeanne. Since the French navy strictly forbad women on their ships, the couple hatched a plan whereby Jeanne would impersonate a male sailor and get a job on board the ship De Comm was on.

The ruse worked. De Comm had Jeanne, the "male" sailor assigned as his assistant and to share his Philibert De Commerson or PhilPhilibert De Commerson or Philcabin. Jeanne was now "Jean", whose shipboard friends all called her that and thought she was a man. She bound her breasts every day and was secretive about her bathroom habits. Her shipmates were a little suspicious of her shyness and, at one point, one of them noticed a lack of proper genitalia. Jean explained that away by saying she had once been captured by Turkish pirates and had been castrated in captivity. That's some quick clever thinking!

DC (short for De Comm) was credited with the collecting of many new plants on the expedition including the Bougainvillea (named after the ship's captain Louis Antoine de Bouganville, or" Lou B" to his friends). The bougainvillea is that sweet smelling flowery vine so quintessential to the Deep South. The truth may be that it was" J" (short for Jean, who was really Jeanne) that was doing most of the collecting, since DC was often in poor health.

BougainvilleaBougainvilleaThe ruse ended when the expedition got to Tahiti. Evidently in Tahiti, transgender and cross dressing is no big deal and the natives quickly recognized and thereby exposed that Jean was Jeanne. Her crew mates responded by gang raping her, or so one story goes. Nine months later, Jeanne (who was no longer Jean now) gave birth to a child and was dumped off along with DC on the island of Mauritius (near Madagascar). Lou B, the captain, figured that was less embarrassing than taking them home and explaining the cock-up. DC and J stayed on the island with the French governor, who was also a botanist, for several years until DC died. Jeanne, being now without any financial support ,married a French soldier (no name, so I don't know what his friends called him) and they both returned to France. There was no brass band awaiting this first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Fortunately, Jeanne lived the rest of her 67 years in modest comfort. The estate of DC paid her small stipend and, oddly enough, the French navy paid her a pension, probably as hush money.

What of the many plants that J and DC collected and classified? Seventy species honor Commerson in Solanum baretiaeSolanum baretiaetheir names; one, Solanum baretiae, honors Jeanne. S. baretiae was only discovered in 2010 by botanist Eric Tepe. Bless his heart, Tepe recognized the nomenclature injustice done to Jeanne Baret and finally recognized her efforts with this Peruvian plant, that is related to tomatoes and potatoes.

It took one bold, bodacious babe two centuries to break the green glass ceiling.

For further reading, there is the 2010 book by Glynis Ridley, "The Discovery of Jean Baret"


June 16, 2016: It has recently come to my attention that all the not-so-boring botanists I have highlighted in the past have been men. In my own defense, I'd like to say it was myself that brought this to my attention and in the interest of fairness and parity I should like to highlight some female botanists and that is just what I will do in this new series - Bold, Bodacious Babes of Botany (or BBB of Botany).

Considering that your typical male not-so-boring botanist of the past could devote their lives to trekking the far reaches of the planet searching for rare flora and getting their names splashed about the botanical news rags of the day. All the while unencumbered by things like child birth, child rearing, care giving , and all that other stuff women were responsible for back then, it's no wonder that most people (or, let's be honest now, men) have not heard of the achievements of women botanists of yore. That's why I was determined to discover the BBB's of Botany through an intensive, all-day, self study on the internet course in women's botanical studies. And I found them. And I'm proud to present my first bold, bodacious babe of botany - Ynes Mexia.

What's really bodacious about Ynes was that she didn't even start her career as a botanist until she 55. 55! When I was 55 I was crossing off the years left till retirement.

Born of a Mexican diplomat father and an Anglo-American mother in 1870, she spent her childhood and teen years in the US and then moved to Mexico with her father to take care of him in the last ten years of his life. Shortly after her father's death in 1896, she married a Spanish-German merchant and also began a long legal battle to claim the family's inheritance (a hacienda and poultry business) from her father's mistress. In the end, she won in 1904 but then her first husband died.

Ynes married a second time, but to a real schmuck. He ran her family poultry business into the ground and she divorced him after a year and went to San Francisco, where she became a social worker. In 1921 she started attending classes at UC Berkeley and became active in the Sierra Club. A class in botany sparked a keen interest and in 1925, at the age of 55, she accompanied a woman botanist on a field collection trip to western Mexico. On that trip, she fell off a cliff and about died, but it didn't stop this BBB of Botany. She went collecting to Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Chile. She traveled the length of the Amazon from its mouth to its source in a canoe with 3 guys and guide, which I'm guessing was also a guy. She also spent 3 months with a remote indigenous Amazonian tribe, then she climbed Mt. McKinley, probably to cool off.

For 12 years she was on the move, collecting plant specimens which she sold to private collectors and institutions to fund the next collecting expedition. Colleagues described her as tough, resilient, sometimes remarkably charming, sometimes impetuous and difficult, always generous. She is credited to having discovered as many as 50 new plant species and two new genera of plants.

Ynes died in 1938 of lung cancer. She left much of her money to further scientific pursuit, including money to the mammologist, Vernon Bailey, who developed one of the first humane live traps, a precursor to the Havahart trap.

She was one bold, bodacious, botany babe.

F & P