Annie Montague Alexander

Annie M. Alexander in France, 1923

Annie Montague Alexander was a naturalist, an intrepid explorer, and an extraordinary patron at a time when women did not have the right to vote and few had any involvement with the world outside their homes. She founded both the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) and the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) on the Berkeley campus and was the benefactress of those museums for more than 40 years. The men she hired and whose research she funded, those whose careers were built on the specimens she collected, are generally well-known within the disciplines of vertebrate zoology and paleontology, e.g., Joseph Grinnell, Alden H. Miller, E. Raymond Hall, John C. Merriam, and Charles L. Camp. Although she preferred anonymity, it was Alexander's vision and her steadfast commitment to basic research that made possible the scientific contributions of these men.

Alexander was born December 29, 1867, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her father, Samuel T. Alexander, and her uncle, Henry Baldwin, were business partners who pioneered the growing of sugar cane on the island of Maui. It was there that Alexander developed a fondness for the out-of-doors and an appreciation for nature and all of its splendid diversity.

In 1882, Samuel moved the family to Oakland, California, a move that never really suited Annie. She loved the islands and returned there almost yearly throughout her life. Plagued by problems with her eyes, she abandoned a career in art, and later one in nursing, for fear that the strain would leave her blind.

Alexander inherited not only her father's business skill and his financial acumen, but his love of travel and adventure as well. In 1899, she and her childhood friend, Martha Beckwith, embarked on a 10-week trip on horseback through northern California and southern Oregon, collecting plants and taking photographs along the way. The trip was Alexander's first experience with systematically categorizing the natural world around her and it awakened in her an interest to learn more.

Alexander with pick

In the fall of 1900 Alexander began attending paleontology lectures at Cal being given by John C. Merriam. Her passion for the subject was immediately ignited and she began contributing specimens to the University's collection. Her knack for locating important fossil specimens proved extraordinary. But it was not just specimens that Alexander began turning over to the Univeristy. She also began providing money for field work and, in 1905, she created a separate fund for such work at the University.

While Alexander's passion for paleontology and for collecting fossils never waned, by 1903 she had also begun collecting specimens of living vertebrates. Not only was she aware that many of the large, terrestrial mammals such as bear and antelope were disappearing, succumbing to the ever-increasing population growth of the state, but she also realized from her annual visits to Hawaii that much indigenous flora and fauna was disappearing elsewhere as well. If a complete and accurate record of the fauna was to be made for posterity, work would have to begin at once.

It was the death of her father in 1904 when they were in Africa together that served as a catalyst for Alexander to found the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Forty years later she wrote,

"I felt I had to do something to divert my mind and absorb my interest and the idea of making collections of west coast fauna as a nucleus for study gradually took shape in my mind."

In writing to C. Hart Merriam in 1906 about her upcoming trip to Alaska, Alexander first laid out her plan for creating the MVZ. It was her hope that such a museum would aid paleontologists on campus by providing comparative material for research, that it would house a complete and accurate record of the West Coast fauna for posterity, and that it would stimulate interest in natural history among the general public. Public education, she hoped, would lead to conservation of all the flora and fauna about which she cared so deeply.

In 1907, Alexander wrote to U.C. President Benjamin Wheeler offering $7000 yearly for seven years if the University would erect a galvanized metal building to serve as her museum. However, her offer also stipulated that she be given complete control over management of the funds for carrying out the work and for selection of the Museum's collectors! Despite opposition from the Regents, President Wheeler assented. The man she hired as the Museum's first director was Joseph Grinnell.

In 1910 Alexander approached the University and succeeded in having Paleontology established as a Department separate from Geology. Ten years later she created the Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) as a research unit separate from the Department.

In 1919 Alexander endowed the MVZ, ensuring her investment into the future and, in 1934, she acted similarly towards the UCMP. As with all her gifts to the University, these donations were made anonymously.

The Franklin and tent in Saline Valley

Alexander's commitment to her museums manifested itself through the field work she did which enlarged their collections. Beginning with the 1908 trip to Alaska, she and her partner, Louise Kellogg, collected annually in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and abroad. The women would camp for weeks and months at a time, often in winter, and often with equipment far inferior to that which Alexander was providing for her Museum staff. Their three-month trip to Baja California with Annetta Carter in 1947 when Alexander was 80 years old yielded unprecedented material and inaugurated Annetta's career as a botanist specializing in that flora.

Although always attentive to the developing graduate student program in the Museum, Alexander's interest in fostering the research programs of women became more pronounced after Grinnell's death in 1939. Between 1941 and 1942 she funded three trips exclusively for women graduate students in the MVZ. In 1948, two years before her death, she also established graduate student scholarships in the MVZ and UCMP which continue today.

Alexander and Kellogg also maintained a life apart from the University. In 1911 they purchased land on Grizzly Island in Suisun Bay in Solano Co., California. Mostly swamp when they purchased the property, the women drained it, cleared it, and began raising hay. Alexander's efforts seem reminiscent of her father's on Maui, and similar to those that were being made all across California at that time, changes that forever altered the landscape of the State and contributed to its eventual pre-eminence agriculturally. When the women were not in the field, they worked on their "Farm." After several years of planting hay, they began raising prize-winning milking shorthorns. From cattle, they switched to asparagus and within several seasons their A&K brand was highly prized nationally. As with every venture Alexander undertook, she was totally committed to this effort.

Alexander's disdain for publicity and her reticence about having things named in her honor have contributed to the paucity of accounts about her profound contributions to our understanding of the flora and fauna of western North America and about the role that she played in the contributions of others to the disciplines of vertebrate natural history, paleontology, and botany. While Alexander was not herself a scientist, it was her vision, her money, the specimens that she collected, and her financial and political acumen that created the natural history museums on the Berkeley campus and that permitted men like Joseph Grinnell and John C. Merriam to achieve distinction in their disciplines. Alexander's sense of fulfillment in her vision is evidenced in this excerpt of a letter she wrote to Grinnell in 1926,

"I am gratified that the Museum has its contribution to make to the solution of the great problems of evolution. That is the ultimate, if not the only goal, is it not, of our special kind of scientific work?"

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