Guns N Taxonomy: The Vertebrate Biology of Annie Alexander (Women in Science 44)
As a rule, our favorite flavors of scientist are the theoretical and experimental – we tend to like them either sitting in a chair creating beautiful abstractions from nothing or heroically chained to an elaborate apparatus, wrenching the universe’s secrets from its reluctant clutches. And those are marvelous ways of doing science, but our love of them tends to obscure the quiet heroism of an entirely different mode of inquiry, that of the Field Scientist. These are the people who labor in every extreme of weather and topography to intelligently collect and record reams of data for the theoreticians to comfortably digest, and without them, science as we know it simply could not happen.
Great field scientists are legends in their particular discipline, but their names rarely filter through to the larger public, because “I collected, prepared, recorded, and categorized five thousand specimens of vole” is less romantic to our collective fancy than, “I used data on vole distribution to make this conjecture about how evolution works.” But there is one person whose work as a field scientist was so substantial in so many different fields for so long that she has by pure grit and determination invaded the public consciousness: Annie Montague Alexander (1867-1950), a woman who never graduated college but who was central to the development of evolutionary biology and paleontology in the early years of the Twentieth Century.
Her story is like none other we’ve seen so far. She was born into the Hawaiian economic aristocracy, her father one of the co-founders of C & H Sugar, who started with a small strip of arid Hawaiian land and ended with a multinational company combining shipping, refining, and farming concerns. He also was uniquely possessed of no gender expectations for his daughter. Wherever her passions went, he was glad to follow. They went on massive sprawling tours of the world’s exotic locales together, hiking mountains and trudging through deserts, any hardship braveable so long as it ended in something new. He also taught his daughter about business and the handling of money, giving her the means to determine her own future.
She had a planet-sized spirit of adventure, and a profound curiosity to match, hindered by just one thing: her eyes. Reading or any close work gave her massive migraine headaches. A surgeon prescribed cutting some of the muscles to her eyeballs, a somewhat terrifying procedure which was carried out and didn’t do much. As a consequence of her inability to read for long spells of time, she did not complete college, and the rest of her life labored under a massive inferiority complex about her intellectual capacity. Self-confident to almost a fault in every other aspect of life, she routinely undersold her abilities as a scientist even after her decades of field work had transformed two entire branches of science.
The first third of her life was something of an aimless ramble, her titanic energy poured into strenuous travel, but as of yet having no higher goal. Then, in 1901, she started auditing classes in paleontology at the University of California in Berkeley, an institution only a few decades old at the time. She saw at once something big enough to be worthy of her energy and her financial resources, and was soon financing, and accompanying, the university’s paleontological expeditions.
That could have been a disaster. Wealth and good intentions can only take one so far. Fortunately, Alexander’s years of experience roughing it through every imaginable climate and privation made her, if anything, the hardiest member of any expedition she was on, even when she was well into her seventies. She slept on the ground, hunted for the crew’s breakfast, was the first one to rise, and the last one to go to sleep. On top of which, she was also a natural at finding promising work locations and intelligently unearthing their secrets. Her first expeditions saw her discovering a new species of ichthyosaur, and she was well on her way to becoming the Twentieth century’s Mary Anning when her life took several turns.
In 1904, she went on a safari with her father through the heart of Africa. This was a common thing for its time – heading to The Dark Continent and having a madcap murdering spree of its native animals. Theodore Roosevelt had a much publicized safari which he turned into a best-selling book, as did many other wealthy and bored Caucasians. None of which popularity makes it any less horrid and cowardly of a pastime. Alexander and her father were keenly excited about the prospect of killing elephants, rhinoceros, and lions, and the only thing to be said to her credit about the entire expedition is that Alexander at least stopped short of killing giraffe and monkeys because of some arbitrary aesthetic line she’d mercifully found within her, eventually. It’s a grotesque episode that ended in tragedy when, while taking pictures at Victoria Falls, a rockslide crushed and killed her father in front of her.
Returning home to Oakland without the father who had been her guide to adventure and the encouraging voice throughout all her bold life experimentation, she looked at their stack of ghoulish hunting trophies and decided to make something more of them than a private carnage shrine. From that humble beginning there arose in 1908 a scientific institution which would, within a decade, become a nation leader in vertebrate biology, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley. Alexander created it from nothing, providing the operating capital to finance research, field expeditions, and publications, and herself undertaking collection missions to Alaska, Oregon, and the remote regions of the remaining California wilderness in a frenzied attempt to document the fauna of the West Coast ecosystems that were being rapidly destroyed by development.
Her stamina in the field was the stuff of legend. For generations since, graduate students stumbling into camp with three or four collected specimens have been deflated with tales of Alexander regularly managing ten a day, when she was in her sixties. She tapped local experts and used the lay of the land to make informed decisions about what practices would serve best. She partnered with her Museum director, Joseph Grinnell, in developing a set of protocols for field collection which became the scientific community’s gold standard in technique and documentation. Grinnell was an evolutionary biologist with one of the world’s largest private collections of bird specimens, and with Alexander’s carefully recorded data, he was able to explain the minutiae of how speciation works in different climates.
The MVZ did crucial work in documenting the role that humans play in species extinction, which served in turn as compelling evidence for the development of a National Park system, which Alexander and Grinnell both played major roles in promoting. Seeing first-hand the impact of development, they knew the need for protected spaces if California’s diversity of wildlife stood any chance of surviving. Alexander gave the Museum $7000 a year, a massive sum for the time, and donated on top of that funds for extra salaries and expedition essentials, with an eventual endowment worth several hundred thousand dollars to stabilize the Museum financially after her death. The vigor of its research and collection philosophy, the openness of its specimen lending policy, and the unusual stability of its finances even in the depths of the Great Depression all made the MVZ the preeminent institution for combined theoretical and field vertebrate biology in the nation.
For you or I, founding and personally stocking one major research institution might be enough, but Alexander’s energy wasn’t nearly consumed yet. She created a Museum of Paleontology to match the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, with an equally generous financial commitment, and personally organized and led several expeditions to stock its store rooms. If it was a smidge less of a success than the MVZ, that was entirely due to the fractious politics that paleontology departments are uniquely prone to.
Manager of immense financial resources, famed field biologist, effective manager of two world-class research museums, Alexander had one more mountain to scale – that of being a life partner. In 1908, she met Louise Kellogg, a field researcher whose grit matched Alexander’s own. For the next forty-two years, they were inseparable. They bought a farm and worked it together, using the off-seasons to go out on collecting expeditions and far-flung world tours. It was a beautiful relationship whose precise contours we’ll never know, but which lasted until Alexander’s death.
Alexander continued collecting into her late seventies, her only concession to age being a switch in focus from vertebrates and fossils to plants. Botany didn’t require the back-breaking labor of paleontology or the heavy trapping equipment and ammunition of vertebrate collection. Kellogg and Alexander headed into the wilderness with tents and satchels, and headed out with thousands of specimens bound for the University Herbarium at Berkeley. As the university claimed more and more control of the Museums she founded, these botanical outings were a useful and refreshing relief from wrangling with self-serving academic bureaucracy.
She maintained her vitality to the abrupt end. One day, while attending an evolution conference, she admitted to some stomach pains. A few days later, a stroke placed her in a long coma, ending in a quiet and merciful death. After several blank pages, the journal that Kellogg and Alexander took turns updating contains one last entry, in Kellogg’s hand. “Finis.”
FURTHER READING: The book which will probably serve as Annie Montague Alexander’s definitive biography for the rest of time is absolutely Barbara R. Stein’s On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West (2001). It is researched down to the nub, every aspect of each collecting expedition, each stop of every vacation, meticulously and accurately presented. It is also a fascinating look at the early development of Cal Berkeley, and the group of independent women who largely financed its growth.
A NOTE ON “COLLECTING”: The word collecting is one that bothers me in a field research context. It’s the standard term, so I’ve used it throughout the article here, but basically it means killing. You go into nature, find as many specimens as you can so as to document variations in size and type, you kill them all, remove the entrails, and mount them according to some standard. The problem with collecting is, of course, it sterilizes the practice and commodifies life in precisely the way Heidegger warned us of right around the time that Alexander was in the thick of her expeditions. It prevents us from thinking critically about whether there aren’t better ways to obtain the same scientific ends. It makes wiping out in a day’s work all of the mother birds of a species in a given area during egg-hatching season (which Alexander did on one notable occasion) seem equivalent to completing one’s baseball card set of the 1972 Yankees – they’re both collecting, right?
The word killing forces us to ask important questions, the word collecting does not. Those are important questions – the thousands of lives harvested by Alexander ultimately went into an understanding of species development that led to the National Park system, and better programs for species conservation, programs that would eventually restrict the volume of her later collections, so does that end then justify those means? If we don’t allow murder to pave the way for improvement for humans, why do we allow it for other animals? Those are big questions, outside the scope of this article, and certainly outside what anybody could reasonably expect to have occurred to Alexander in 1912, but they deserve talking about, and if I can give us all a bit of pause the next time the word collected is casually bandied about, so much the better.