Mary Katharine Brandegee

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Mary Katharine "Kate" Brandegee (October 28, 1844 – April 3, 1920) was an American botanist known for her comprehensive studies of flora in California.


Brandegee was born Mary Katharine Layne on October 28, 1844, the second child of ten to Mary Morris Layne, a housewife, and Marshall Layne, a farmer.[1] The Laynes lived in western Tennessee and had nine other children.[2][3][4] Her family, already peripatetic, moved to California during the Gold Rush of 1849, though Marshall chose to farm;[2] they settled in Folsom, California when Kate was 9.[4]

In 1866, 22 years old, she married Hugh Curran, a constable; in 1874, he died of alcoholism.[2][3] She did not marry again until 1889, when she wed Townshend Brandegee; they shared a love of science as she was a botanist and he was a civil engineer and plant collector.[2][3] The couple walked from San Diego to San Francisco collecting plants for their honeymoon.[5]

Brandegee died on April 3, 1920, in Berkeley, 76 years old.[2][3]

Career and legacy[edit]

The year after Curran died, Brandegee moved to San Francisco to attend medical school at the University of California, becoming the third woman to ever matriculate there.[3] There, she studied medicinal plants and became interested in botany. She received her M.D. in 1878 but chose not to practice.[2] The botanist Hans Hermann Behr took her on as a student and in 1979.[6]

Brandegee became a member at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. There, she collected plants throughout the state and worked in the Academy’s herbarium to continue her botanical training, working alongside Albert Kellogg.[5][6] After Kellogg retired in 1883, Brandegee became the Academy's botany curator.[6] As curator, she turned her energy to improving the herbarium and took up writing and editing to establish and produce the Bulletin of the California Academy of Sciences. As “acting editor” she provided botanists on the West Coast a way to publish their findings quickly instead of routing all new species naming through Asa Gray at Harvard, allowing for scientific independence.

Taking a pay cut, Brandegee took Alice Eastwood as a student in 1891, who succeeded her as curator in 1893.[5][7]

The couple relocated in San Diego from 1894 to 1906, settling in the Bankers Hill area and established a brick herbarium and San Diego’s first botanical garden on their property.[1] Together, they collected plants throughout California, Arizona, and Mexico.[3]

After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the couple moved back and donated over 76,000 specimens from their personal collection to the University of California, Berkeley.[5]

Brandegee was a systematic botanist who became impatient with submitting species to Asa Gray for a botanical description. Instead, she described and defended their specimens in West Coast journals.[1] The couple founded and published the California Academy of Science's bulletins as well as the Western botany journal Zoe.[2] As she traveled, she found that several newly discovered species were actually not distinct. Her specimens also allowed later scientists to precisely determine the ranges of plants in the Western US.[4]


  1. ^ a b c Carter, Nancy Carol (2011). "The Brandegees: Leading Botanists in San Diego" (PDF). Retrieved 19 November 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Oakes 2002, p. 40.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Yount 1999, pp. 24-25.
  4. ^ a b c Ogilvie & Harvey 2000, p. 171.
  5. ^ a b c d "» Katharine Brandegee: Blazing a Trail for Women in Science | NYBG". Retrieved 2015-11-19. 
  6. ^ a b c "Brandegee, Katharine Layne (1844-1920) | University and Jepson Herbaria Archives, University of California, Berkeley". Retrieved 2015-11-19. 
  7. ^ "Biodiversity Heritage Library: Celebrating Women's History Month: Alice Eastwood". Retrieved 2015-11-19. 
  8. ^ "Author Query". International Plant Names Index. 
  • Oakes, Elizabeth H. (2002), International Encyclopedia of Women Scientists, Facts On File, ISBN 0-8160-4381-7 
  • Ogilvie, Marilyn; Harvey, Joy (2000), The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science, ISBN 0-415-92040-X 
  • Yount, Lisa (1999), A to Z of Women in Science and Math, Facts on File, ISBN 0-81603797-3