Mary Vaux Walcott

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Mary Vaux Walcott
Mary Morris Vaux

July 31, 1860
Philadelphia, PA
DiedAugust 22, 1940 (1940-08-23) (aged 80)
Saint Andrews, New Brunswick
Scientific career
FieldsBotany, Geology
InstitutionsSmithsonian Institution
Author abbrev. (botany)M.Walcott

Mary Morris Vaux Walcott (July 31, 1860 – August 22, 1940) was an American artist and naturalist known for her watercolor paintings of wildflowers. She has been called the "Audubon of Botany."[1]


Mary Vaux Walcott, 1914
Painting of Balsamorhiza sagittata (arrowleaf balsamroot) by Walcott

Vaux[a] was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a wealthy Quaker family. After graduating from the Friends Select School in Philadelphia in 1879, she took an interest in watercolor painting. When she was not working on the family farm, she began painting illustrations of wildflowers that she saw on family trips to the Rocky Mountains in Canada.[3] During these summer trips, she and her brothers studied mineralogy and recorded the flow of glaciers in drawings and photographs.[4] The trips to the Canadian Rockies sparked her interest in geology.[3]

In 1880, her mother died and at 19 years old Vaux took on the responsibility of caring for her father and two younger brothers.[5] After 1887, she and her brothers went back to western Canada almost every summer. During this time she became an active mountain climber, outdoors woman, and photographer. Asked one summer to paint a rare blooming arnica by a botanist, she was encouraged to concentrate on botanical illustration.[4] She spent many years exploring the rugged terrain of the Canadian Rockies to find important flowering species to paint. On these trips, Vaux became the first woman to accomplish the over 10,000 feet ascent of Mount Stephen.[6] In 1887, on her first transcontinental trip via rail, she wrote an engaging travel journal of the family's four-month trek through the American West and the Canadian Rockies.[7]

Over her father's fierce objections, in 1914 Mary Vaux, then 54, married the paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott, a widower who was the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. She played an active part in her husband's projects, returning to the Rockies with him several times and continuing to paint wildflowers. In 1925, the Smithsonian published some 400 of her illustrations, accompanied by brief descriptions, in a five-volume work entitled North American Wild Flowers, the proceeds of which went to the Smithsonian's endowment.[8][9] In Washington, Vaux became a close friend of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover[5] and raised money to erect the Florida Avenue Meeting House, so that the first Quaker President and his wife would have a proper place to worship. From 1927 to 1932, Mary Vaux Walcott served on the federal Board of Indian Commissioners and, driven by her chauffeur, traveled extensively throughout the American West, diligently visiting reservations.

When she was 75, she made her first trip abroad to Japan to visit lifelong friend and fellow Philadelphia Quaker, Mary Elkinton Nitobe, who had married Japanese diplomat Inazo Nitobe.

She was elected president of the Society of Woman Geographers in 1933. In 1935, the Smithsonian published Illustrations of North American Pitcher-Plants, which included 15 paintings by Walcott. Following the death of her husband in 1927, Walcott established the Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal in his honor. It is awarded for scientific work on pre-Cambrian and Cambrian life and history. Walcott died in St. Andrews, New Brunswick in 1940.[3]

In her own words[edit]

On field photography:

"A camera is a very delightful adjunct, for it is pleasant to have some tangible results to show, on your return home. A Kodak, if no larger instrument can be managed, yields most satisfactory results, although the better records from a larger-sized camera are an increased delight, when one has the patience and skill to obtain them. For changing plates in camp, an improvised tepee can be made of the blankets, and, if this is done after sundown, is quite satisfactory." - Vaux, writing in "Camping in the Canadian Rockies" in the Canadian Alpine Journal[10]

On measuring glaciers:

""The glaciers must be measured, and I shall hope to use the camera seriously, and get all I can. Last summer's work was such a disappointment in photographic results." -Mary Vaux Walcott, Letters to Charles Walcott, April 1, 1912.[11]

On the outdoors:

"Sometimes I feel that I can hardly wait till the time comes to escape from city life, to the free air of the everlasting hills." -Mary Vaux Walcott, Letters to Charles Walcott, Feb 19, 1912.[11]


Upon her death in 1940, Mary Vaux Walcott bequeathed $400,000 to the Smithsonian Institution as an addition to the fund she and her husband, Charles Walcott, created for geological research and publication.[12]

A mountain, called Mount Mary Vaux, in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada, is named after her. It is located at 52°33′0″N 117°27′10″W / 52.55000°N 117.45278°W / 52.55000; -117.45278.[3] Mary Vaux shared interests similar to those of artist, photographer, writer and explorer Mary Schäffer, and they were good friends.[13]

Selected works[edit]

  • North American Wildflowers, 5 vols., pub. by the Smithsonian Institution, 1925, repub. 1988 ISBN 0-517-64269-7
  • 15 paintings in Illustrations of American Pitcherplants, pub. by the Smithsonian Institution, 1935


  1. ^ pronounced "vox"[2]


  1. ^ Jones, Marjorie G. (2016). The Life and Times of Mary Vaux Walcott. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Press. ISBN 9780764349720.
  2. ^ Mary-Beth Laviolette (2012). A Delicate Art: Artists, Wildflowers and Native Plants of the West. Rocky Mountain Books Ltd. pp. 39–. ISBN 978-1-927330-05-0.
  3. ^ a b c d "Mary Vaux Walcott". Harvard Forest. Retrieved 30 January 2014.
  4. ^ a b "Mary Vaux Walcott". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved 30 January 2014.
  5. ^ a b Jones, Marjorie G. (Spring 2014). "The Joy of Sympathetic Companionship: The Correspondence of Mary Vaux Walcott & First Lady Lou Henry Hoover". Quaker History. 103 (1): 36–52. doi:10.1353/qkh.2014.0000. S2CID 162284047.
  6. ^ "VAUX, Mary Morris (Walcott)". Canadian Women Artists Database. June 16, 2016. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  7. ^ Jones, Marjorie G. (Spring 2011). "Bowling Along: Early Travel Adventures of Mary Morris Vaux". Quaker History. 100 (1): 22–39. doi:10.1353/qkh.2011.0006. S2CID 162635806.
  8. ^ "Mary Vaux Walcott | Smithsonian American Art Museum". Retrieved 2021-03-25.
  9. ^ Henson, Pamela M. (2015-03-26). "Mary Vaux Walcott's Wild Flowers". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 2021-03-25.
  10. ^ Vaux, Mary M. (1907). "Camping in the Canadian Rockies". Canadian Alpine Journal. 1: 67–71.
  11. ^ a b Walcott, Mary Vaux. Letters to Charles Walcott. Published at Accessed October 10, 2017.
  12. ^ sysadmin (1940). "Mary Vaux Walcott Leaves Bequest to SI". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 2021-03-25.
  13. ^ Beck, Janice Sanford (2001). No Ordinary Woman: The Story of Mary Schäffer Warren. Rocky Mountain Books Ltd. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-921102-82-3.
  14. ^ International Plant Names Index.  M.Walcott.

External links[edit]