Dr. Anna Isabel Mulford: Botanical Groundbreaker

The Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium is more than just a research tool for botanists; it’s also a window into history. Each specimen tells a story—connecting people, plants, and places. With more than 7 million specimens, the Garden Herbarium has some amazing stories to tell.

The Herbarium can tell us about the early career of groundbreaking botanist George Washington Carver, the art and herbarium of naturalist Sadie Price, and the prolific plant collecting of a presidential candidate. It can also shed some light on one of the first women to make an impact on the Garden’s world-famous botanical research.

Dr. Anna Isabel Mulford

Anna Isabel Mulford came to St. Louis after graduating from Vassar College in 1886. She enrolled in the Henry Shaw School of Botany at Washington University, where in 1895 she would become the university’s first student — of any gender — to earn a PhD.

Image credit: Washington University

Her botanical accomplishments included describing several new species and collecting other specimens that would later be described as new species or varieties by other botanists. She even had at least three species named in her honor including Astragalus mulfordiae, a member of the bean family. It’s common name is Mulford’s milkvetch.

Astragalus mulforidiae collected by Anna Isabel Mulford. From the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium.

The Garden Herbarium and other archival records give some insight into Mulford’s career path and her impact on botanical research. More than 300 of her specimen records have been digitized into the Garden’s Tropicos database—allowing for a detailed look at when and where she was collecting plants.  Like many botanists of the time, she showed particular interest in the plants of the American west, with its vast areas of land still largely unexplored by settlers and scientists.

One of her first, and most productive, field expeditions brought her up the Oregon Trail to Oregon and Idaho in 1892. Mulford collected more than 1,100 plants on this expedition.  She wrote about her collecting trip for the Botanical Gazette, “I have learned to regard Idaho as a meeting place of various floras. There one meets with sub-arctic plants from the north which can even be traced to Siberia, and the cacti and other southern plants are common. There is a large desert flora and also moist thickets and meadows with a most luxuriant vegetation.”

It was on this trip she collected Mulford’s milkvetch during a stop in Boise. A few weeks later, she collected Frasera montana, a member of the gentian family she described as a new species. Mulford described three other new species and a new variety from plants collected on this trip.

Left: Frasera montana collected and described by Anna Isabel Mulford. Right: Frasera montana in bloom.

1895 was another notable year for Mulford. She spent the summer collecting in Texas and New Mexico while working on her doctoral thesis. She collected many different types of plants, but the focus of her research was on expanding the botanical understanding of agaves. The School of Botany and Missouri Botanical Garden proved excellent sources to support her work.

Garden Director Dr. William Trelease, who was also the head of the School of Botany at Washington University, had particular interest in the genus Agave. Mulford also built upon the work of Dr. George Engelmann, a botanist associated with the Garden, who extensively studied the plants before his death in 1884.

Mulford’s dissertation, “A study of the Agave of the United States,” was published in the Garden’s Annual Report in 1896. It was later cited by Trelease himself as part of further research on agave species.

For instance, flowers collected by Mulford in 1895 were used by Trelease to name a new species, Agave gracilipes. And in 1920, Trelease would name a new species in her honor, Agave mulforidiana (later determined to be Agave schottii). Her work was even on display for Garden visitors, with a photograph from 1897 showing the tall flower spike of an Agave parryi collected by Mulford during her research.

Left: Flowers of Agave gracilipes collected by Anna Isabel Mulford. Right: An Agave parryi collected by Mulford in bloom at the Garden in 1897.

Dr. Mulford also gained attention for her teaching. She taught classes for the School of Botany at Washington University and at the Garden. Of her teaching ability, Dr. Trelease wrote, “In the autumn and winter [Dr.] Mulford has continued her excellent work with special classes by giving at the Garden and in the public school buildings a number of teachers’ courses, adapted to the science requirements of the public schools, a direction which I am especially desirous of having the Garden facilities utilized to the utmost.” Records indicate she was also a teacher at McKinley High School from at least 1907 to 1910.

Little else is known about Dr. Mulford’s life and professional career outside of her time in St. Louis. Census records show she had moved back to her hometown of East Orange, New Jersey, by 1930. She passed away in 1943 at the age of 95.

Botany, like many other scientific fields, was (and still is) a male-dominated discipline. And the higher education institutions providing access were likewise made up overwhelmingly of men. That is just one reason Mulford’s accomplishments are so remarkable—that she made them at a time when many women were simply not afforded the opportunity to even attempt them. Mulford is just one of the trailblazing women in Garden history who helped to pave the way for botanists today.

Cassidy Moody
Senior Digital Media Specialist

Leave a Reply