Early life and educational background
Born in western Tennessee, Mary Katharine Brandegee (née Layne) was introduced to the natural world at a young age. With her father’s desire to venture westward, Brandegee spent her youth traveling to Salt Lake City, UT, Carson City, NV, and finally to El Dorado County, CA. In 1875, at the age of 31, Brandegee moved to San Francisco, where she enrolled at the University of California to study medicine. Brandegee received her medical license, three years after enrolling in her university. However, even after earning her degree she wasn’t able to establish a successful practice, as potential clients refused her services because she was a woman. Departing from her medical practice, Brandegee received mentorships from her former professor and vice president of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Dr. Hans Herman Behr. Together they studied botany, and Behr introduced Brandegee to other members of the California Academy of the Sciences.
The first female curator of botany
After becoming a member of the California Academy of Sciences, Brandegee committed her time to the herbarium. She properly organized and classified the botanical collections at the Academy. She went on her own botanical expeditions, traveling all over the US to study the country’s flora, and fill the Academy’s collections. Brandegee’s dedication to her botanical work is reflected after she married Townshend Stith Brandegee in 1889. On their honeymoon, the couple traveled 500 miles by foot collecting and studying flora to take back to the California Academy of Sciences. In 1891, after Albert Kellogg retired, Katherine was offered the position of sole curator of the Academy’s herbarium. Making her the first woman to be a botany department curator in a scientific museum at that time and the first female curator of the California Academy of Sciences.
Powerful figure in science communication
During her time as a curator for the botany department for the California Academy of Sciences, Brandegee became a prominent voice in the evolution of botanical scientific writing. Brandegee, along with the help of her husband, created the scientific journal Zoe. Through Zoe, Brandegee published a lot of her botanical findings. She helped create and operate the California Botanical Club, a club for both professional and amateur plant enthusiasts to create unity between botanists of the Pacific coast regions. Brandegee published her studies of Portulacaceae, Ceanothus, Cotyledons incumbent, and Cotyledons oblique plants through the California Academy of Sciences proceedings.
Brandegee's political power and catalyst for change
In addition to being a pioneer for the Academy’s diverse botanical collections, she also held a high position in Academy politics. She ran Academy affairs by offering her opinion of her fellow scientists' work. In her paper reviews, she would praise and often criticize her colleagues’ work. Her most notable criticism befell Edward Lee Greene’s botanical publication, Manual of the Botany of the Region of San Francisco (1894).
Life after the Academy
Brandegee and her husband eventually left the California Academy of Sciences and developed herbaria in San Diego and Berkeley. She died in 1920.
Brandegee, K. 28 Sept. 1894. “Studies in Portulacaceae.” 28 Sept. 1894. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 2nd series, Volume IV Part 1. San Francisco, CA.
Brandegee, K. 28 Sept. 1894. “Studies in Ceanothus.” Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 2nd series, Volume IV Part 1. San Francisco, CA.
Daniel, T.F. 16 May 2008. “One Hundred and Fifty Years of Botany at the California Academy of Sciences (1853-2003).” Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 4th series, 59(7): 215–305.
“Details - Zoe:A Biological Journal - Biodiversity Heritage Library.” Accessed May 3, 2022. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/80.
Hittell, T.H. 1997. The California Academy of Sciences 1853–1906. A.E. Leviton and M.L. Aldrich, Eds. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, CA.
About the author
Gabriella Garcia is a Careers in Science Level 3 intern at the California Academy of Sciences.