Aegopogon cenchroides

Date: 1923
Owner: Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation
Source Type: Images


Aegopogon cenchroides, commonly known as relaxgrass, is an uncommon grass found throughout Mexico and South America that was first cataloged by Humboldt and Bonpland during their expedition to Latin America. The picture here was drawn by Agnes Chase (1869-1963), a U.S. botanist who made several scientific expeditions to Latin America in the early twentieth century, an era in which expeditions, even more so than local science, were restrictively male. U.S. botanists who wanted to explore and collect in the tropics usually relied on financial and logistical support from well-funded institutions, but these institutions almost never deigned to fund females. Tropical research centers like the Smithsonian's Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal Zone forbade women to have overnight stays because women were not considered true professionals and it was feared they would both lower the overall level of discourse and turn a research center into a site of promiscuity. Women like Chase, however, were able to overcome these barriers through their own determination and by eschewing U.S. institutions in favor of support from local Latin American scientists.

Before becoming the world's leading authority in grasses, Chase got her start in science with botanical drawings. Scientific art was, since the eighteenth century, considered to be an acceptable way for women to participate on the periphery of science, and many women drew the pictures for their husband's and father's scientific works. Chase, however, would not be relegated to the periphery, and she used field work, especially in Latin America, to achieve international renown. More so than other parts of the world, the tropics--which the "science" of environmental determinism saw as hotbeds of lasciviousness--were considered an inappropriate region for civilized northern women to explore alone. Yet with almost no external financial support, Chase traveled to Puerto Rico in 1913 to conduct field research integral to the publication of her co-authored book Grasses of the West Indies. In 1924, she spent eight months collecting plant in Brazil, where she obtained about 500 samples from Brazil's vast grasslands.

In 1940, the seventy-one year old Chase was invited to Venezuela to help modernize pasture management, part of a common trend among Latin American countries to invite foreign specialists to improve local scientific infrastructure. During this trip she worked closely with botanist Henri Pittier (see the Botany and Scientific Institutions topics for more on him) and Dra. Zoraida Luces, the three of whom retraced the travels of Humboldt across eastern Venezuela. Chase later invited Luces to spend a year training with her at the Smithsonian Institute (where she now held a leading position) and Luces returned home as Venezuela's national grass expert. Luces is just one of several Latin American female scientists with whom Chase maintained a correspondence, trained in Washington, and worked with during her expeditions. Unlike most male-led scientific expeditions, Chase gave at least as much back to Latin America as she took away.

Although Chase was not herself from Latin America, she broke down barriers that restricted U.S. women from exploring the tropic's bounty while facilitating the advancement of women scientists throughout Latin America. From humble beginnings as an illustrator of plants, Chase made a huge contribution to opening Latin America and the Caribbean to all scientists.

Reference: Henson, Pamela M. "Invading Arcadia: Women Scientists in the Field in Latin America, 1900-1950." In The Americas, vol. 58, no. 4 Field Science in Latin America (Apr., 2002), pp. 577-600.

CITATION: ''Aegopogon cenchroides Humb. et Bonpl.'' Accession Number: 6010.0002. Hitchcock-Chase Collection of Grass Drawings, courtesy of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa., on indefinite loan from the Smithsonian Institution.