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Rebecca Merritt Smith Austin (1832-1919)

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Biographical was material extracted from Taking to the Field: Women Naturalists in the Nineteenth-Century West, by Nancy J. Warner (1995). Master of Science thesis, Utah State University.

Rebecca Merritt Smith was born in 1832 in Cumberland County Kentucky, but at the age of five, her parents moved their family of eight to Missouri. Shortly thereafter, her mother and two elder sisters died, so Rebecca was cared for by various relatives for the next seven years. In 1848, at fourteen, Rebecca and a few friends attended the public schools in Magnolia, Illinois, and Rebecca went on to take botany, chemistry, Latin, and other classes at Granville Academy. By the time she was sixteen, she was splitting her time between classes at the Academy and teaching in rural Illinois.

In June of 1852, Rebecca married Dr. Alva Leonard, a Magnolia physician and moved to Peoria. Their first child, a son named Byron was born three years later; a year later, while pregnant with her second, a daughter named Mary, her husband died. With the death of her husband, and the loss of all her savings in 1857, Rebecca became a teacher and moved to Tennessee two years later with some of her mother's relatives. A year later, after her life was threatened for abolitionist sentiments, she moved her family to Mineola, Kansas.

While teaching there, she met and married a local farmer named James T. Austin. After her husband's short stint in the Union Army (he was discharged after a year due to Rebecca's illness), the family moved to California to work in the mines in March 1865. The new landscape of Black Hawk Creek, California fascinated her, and she maintained her interest in botany, even after the birth of her third child, Josephine, two months later. Within a year, she began collecting plants, some brought by her brothers, particularly the pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica) and other carnivorous plants which grew near her house. In 1872, she met the botanist J. G. Lemmon, and upon introducing him to the pitcher plant, became a regular correspondent of his.

Throughout the 1870s, she studied the natural history of, the insects captured by, and feeding habits of, Darlingtonia, and the natural history of many other plants. In 1874, Lemmon introduced her, via mail, to a Delaware botanist named William Canby, who was also interested in carnivorous plants. With her scientific teaching, inquisitive nature, and new mentors, she began experimenting with Darlingtonia, trying to determine if the plant secretes the fluid in the pitchers, how long it takes to consume an insect, etc. She published a few letters in obscure journals for amateur naturalists, and other of her experiments and/or correspondences were published or cited by Asa Gray, Lemmon, Canby, Frank Morton Jones, and others.

However, her family's financial situation remained unstable, and so she turned to collecting the unique plants and selling them. Her scientific contacts turned into customers and her business swelled, although finding time between her household duties to collect plants was becoming increasingly difficult. In 1883, Rebecca and her family moved to Modoc County, and her collecting business expanded to include more of the flora of California and Oregon, with the help of her daughter Josephine. After more than thirty years of collecting for her business, her health began to fail, and she died in 1919 in California.

Other material on Rebecca Austin:

    • Reminiscences by Rebecca Austin's daughter, transcribed by Frank Morton Jones.
    • Some botanical observations on carnivorous plants, published as R.M. Austin (1880) Notes on the flora of Plumas County. The California Horticulturist and Floral Magazine X (8): 225-229. Transcription by Frank Morton Jones.
    • Description of a field trip to Butterfly Valley in 1871 by J. G. Lemmon, R. M. Austin, and others, published as Lemmon, J. G. (1876) Botanical Excursions no. 2: the northen valleys and Lassen Peak (continued), part II, Butterfly Valley and the Darlingtonia. Mining and Scientific Press (San Francisco), April 29, 1876, p. 274. Transcription by Frank Morton Jones.
    • Obituary of R. M. Austin, published in the Plumas National-Bulletin, March 27, 1919. [ Front Page of Plumas National-Bulletin.
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