Alexander longed for a life of outdoor adventure
Cover image credit: Annie Alexander, digitized by D.K. Smith, UCMP (Public Domain)1
In 1901, a wealthy heiress to a sugar fortune audited courses at the University of California at Berkeley. Her close friend noticed she loved the outdoors and suggested that she study paleontology. When Annie Alexander sat in her first paleontology class, she instantly fell in love with the subject.
“I am really alarmed. If it were a general interest in geology there might be something quite wholesome in it but it seems to centralize on fossils, fossils!”Annie Alexander to Martha Beckwith2
Alexander was not born into a world that supported women paleontologists. She never thought of herself as a scientist, although she was fascinated with geology, paleontology, zoology, and the outdoors. However, she used her financial and business acumen to become actively involved in paleontology. She founded the museum at UC Berkeley and molded the university’s paleontology program into one of the top in the world.
Annie’s status as a wealthy woman placed unique constraints on her. There were many expectations of what a woman of her class was “supposed” to do. Alexander loved natural science and the outdoors and wanted to become more involved in paleontology. She used her wealth to break through the door, but she never wanted fame or recognition for her philanthropy. She even refused the university’s request to name the museum after her.
Annie Alexander wanted nothing more than to “follow the saurian to the bitter end, chisel it of of the rock and write learned treatises on his venerable anatomy.”2
Alexander is also important for another, probable, aspect of her life.2,3 She may be among the earliest LGBTQIA paleontologists in the US. While never open about her sexuality, she long sought the companionship of another woman who would enthusiastically follow her into the wild on her many adventures. She wrote long, heartfelt letters to her women friends, and spent the last decades of her life living with her close companion Louise Kellogg. I wanted to include Alexander in my Founding Five specifically because of her representation of LGBTQIA paleontologists.
Annie Alexander’s life can be defined by her search for a place of belonging. She craved adventure and companionship. By becoming involved with paleontology, she found both.
The Forests of Hawaii to the Streets of Oakland
Annie Alexander was the second daughter of a wealthy sugar company owner, Samuel Alexander, who founded the C&H Sugar Company. Annie grew up in Hawaii, where she enjoyed exploring the outdoors, swimming, horseback riding, and having other adventures. Annie and Samuel shared many of the same characteristics. They both loved adventure, travel, and the outdoors. Annie also was Samuel’s equal when it came to matters of business.2
Purportedly, as a child, Alexander’s uncle offered her a quarter for each avocado seedling she could procure for him. The young Alexander showed up in his yard one day with a cart full of avocado plants and a bill for $75.2
Alexander’s life was upended when her father moved the family to Oakland, California. Unlike the freedom she experienced in Hawaii, Alexander was stifled by the expectations for a young wealthy woman in the city. She hated living in Oakland and longed for her youth trampling through the rainforests of Maui.2
Her reprieve from city life came when Alexander and her father traveled around the world together. Samuel encouraged Alexander to explore the world and fostered her interest in the outdoors.2 However, each of these exotic trips was followed by a return to the monotony of city life.
While the relationship with her father led to her interest in travel and adventure, it was her close friendship with Martha Beckwith that would introduce her to geosciences. Beckwith’s father was a business partner of Samuel Alexander, and the two families often spent time together. Annie and Martha quickly became close friends.
Beckwith often accompanied Alexander on long hiking trips in the mountains of California. On these trips, Beckwith noted Alexander’s love for the outdoors and natural sciences. She suggested Alexander audit geology and paleontology courses at nearby UC-Berkeley. This bit of advice would change Alexander’s life.2
Alexander felt strongly about Beckwith. The letters she wrote to Martha show a deep care and longing, but suggest the feelings were not mutual. Beckwith eventually moved to Europe, leaving Alexander alone in Oakland. Alexander was devastated. She lost her closest companion, and someone she may have had romantic feelings for.
Alexander’s relationship with Beckwith guided her to paleontology, but left her feeling alone and longing for another woman who could be there for her and explore the world.
Paleontology and Exploration
On Martha Beckwith’s advice, Annie Alexander audited paleontology courses at UC-Berkeley. She happened to take courses taught by John Merriam, professor of vertebrate paleontology. She was instantly enamored by the science. It was as if a fossil cupid had struck her with its arrow. She wanted to be a paleontologist.2,4
Alexander was intelligent, and others noted her aptitude for science, but she never felt secure in her own intellectual abilities. She said once how she felt more comfortable farming than relying on “labor of the head.” In one letter to Martha Beckwith she wrote:
“Paleontology is getting too deep for me. I succumb before the complex structure of the echinodermata [e.g., starfish, urchins, etc.]! This superficial way of doing things injures my self-respect but it is better than nothing isn’t it and perhaps some day I can do laboratory work.”Annie Alexander to Martha Beckwith2
In 1901, her family made a return visit to Hawaii. Now interested in geosciences, Alexander found a geologic map of the island of Oahu and spent the trip collecting fossils around Pearl Harbor. When she returned to California, she decided she wanted to join in Merriam’s fossil hunting expeditions. To convince the professor, she offered to fund his research. Merriam in return allowed Alexander to accompany his field crew on a series of field expeditions across the western US from 1901-1905.2
I will cover these expeditions in more detail in my next post. One of these expeditions to Nevada in 1905 was detailed in a journal kept by Alexander, and I want to go into that trip in more detail. The expeditions resulted in the collection of substantial fossil material that put UC-Berkeley on the map as one of the world’s premier paleontology institutions.2
Alexander did not simply tag along on these expeditions. She actively worked at the dig sites and maintained basecamps. She was required to bring another woman along with her, as at the time it was considered unbecoming for a woman to go into the field alone with a group of men. As a result, Alexander brought a series of women with her in the field. None of these companions ever came as close to Alexander as Beckwith had been. She wrote how she longed for another woman she could travel the world with.2
In 1904, Alexander’s life was upended by tragedy. Her father asked Annie to accompany him on a hunting trip across Africa. She was overjoyed and enthusiastically followed him around Africa. The two spent months around the savannas and jungles of the continent. Samuel Alexander wrote an interesting anecdote:
“An Austrian Count returned about two weeks ago from a shooting trip with nine lion skins. He came, however, in one case, very near being killed. If it had not been for his brave gun carrier, who brained the lion when it was on top of him, he would have been killed. I have the same gun bearer, and if he cannot handle the lion I know that Annie will seize it by the tail and sling it 20 ft. away.”Samuel T. Alexander May, 19045
The two Alexanders immensely enjoyed their African safari. Annie herself really took to the adventure. Samuel wrote “I’m afraid this life suits her too well.” As the trip wrapped up, the two decided to tour Victoria Falls and started on a hike up a steep cliff face to a scenic overlook.5
By chance, a rock dislodged from the face and fell. It hit Samuel, crushing his leg. He bled profusely from the wound, and the nearest doctor was a six mile hike away. Samuel died in Africa. Annie was without her father and faced a long, lonely journey home.
Samuel’s death devastated Alexander. She felt aimless without her father, and needed to find a new purpose. During the return journey, she decided to commit herself to paleontology and philanthropy.2,5
Finding Her Way
Alexander found herself an unexpected heiress to a fortune and lacking the close friendship of both her father and Martha Beckwith who lived an ocean away. She decided to focus on what she enjoyed the most, paleontology.
“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.”Annie Alexander2
Alexander decided that, rather than just funding fossil hunting expeditions, she would help pay for a facility to store the tens of thousands of fossils and zoological specimens UC Berkeley had amassed. She gave the university a large donation to build the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and was a main benefactor for the UC Museum of Paleontology.4
Alexander also became one of the paleontology program’s primary benefactors and influencers. She even weighed in on faculty hires. Her life finally had a purpose that she both strongly believed in, and it suited her business strengths.4
Alexander continued to explore the world and collect specimens for her new museum, but she still longed for another woman she could share these adventures with. The women she took on her previous expeditions never really enjoyed the outdoors in the same way that Alexander had. They were also not as enthusiastic about world travel. In 1908, that changed when Alexander met Louise Kellogg, a teacher from Oakland, California.
Alexander was planning a collecting trip to Alaska and needed a new companion. Kellogg was more than happy to accompany her. The two enjoyed hiking and hunting through the rugged terrain of Alaska. The trip marked the beginning of a 42 year long relationship. By all accounts they were incredibly devoted to one another.2,3
In 1911, Annie put her knowledge and love of farming into practice when she and Kellogg purchased land in California. They began a very successful asparagus farm that supplied a large portion of America with the vegetable. While they ran the farm, Alexander also ran the paleontology program and museum at UC-Berkeley. Alexander had finally found her place in the world. She was involved in paleontology and had a life-long companion she could share her adventures with.2,3
There is some debate about whether or not Alexander and Kellogg were in a romantic relationship. Biographer Barbra Stein suggested they had a “romantic friendship,” although noted several contemporaries of Alexander suggest it may have been more than friendship. This would have been a tough time for two women to be in an open relationship, especially a woman of Alexander’s status and public visibility. Same-sex relationships were not acceptable and could have really hurt Alexander’s philanthropy efforts. Regardless, I believe it is important to acknowledge this part of Alexander to show that the LGBTQIA community has played important roles in paleontology, and they should be a welcome part of it today.2,3
Annie Alexander had finally found her place. She had the freedom to go on adventures, was able to participate in a science she loved, and found the companionship of a woman who was equally as excited about the outdoors. She continued having adventures until her death in 1950, where she was buried in her birth state of Hawaii. She was laid to rest in the place she always felt most at home.
I hope you enjoyed reading about Annie Alexander! In part 2, I’ll take some more time to discuss Annie’s paleontology expeditions in the early 1900’s in the context of diversity and inclusion in geoscience field work.
- Alexander, A. M. (1905). Saurian expedition scrap book. Digitized by D.K. Smith (2017). 1905 Saurian Expedition. University of California Museum of Paleontology.
- Stein, B. R. (2001). On her own terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the rise of science in the American West. Univ of California Press.
- Gay Bears: The hidden history of the Berkeley campus.: Annie Alexander and Louise Kellogg. Link.
- University of California Museum of Paleontology. Annie Montague Alexander (1867-1950). Link.
- Childers, J.L. (2016). The Woman Beyond the Portrait: Annie and Samuel Alexander’s 1904 Expedition to East Africa. MVZ Archives. Link.