Mary Strong Clemens (1873-1968): A Collector-Emissary of Colonial Flora

Ms Kathleen Gutierrez1

1University Of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, United States

At the start of the U.S. colonial period in the Philippines (1898), U.S. botanists grappled with the diversity of un-described plant life. A dearth of trained botanists in the colony necessitated the hiring of independent plant specialists, who could work contractually on behalf of the colonial government. A native of New York, Mary Strong Clemens took her amateur botanizing career to Manila in 1902. Spanning over six decades, Clemens’s career was defined by her expertise in Malesian flora and by her specimen collections from the Philippines, British North Borneo, Indo-China, and New Guinea.

This presentation examines Clemens’s inter-colonial collecting career. I argue that she, along with other contractual plant specialists, became a “collector-emissary” for U.S. colonial botany. During what historian Charles Schmidt-Nowara (2006) calls the “second wave” of imperial expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, botany was part of the intellectual consolidation of old and emerging empires. Publishing U.S. colonial botanists relied on collections made by collector-emissaries to advance intellectual claims inter-colonially: revisions to the flora of French Indo-China and of the Dutch East Indies could flex U.S. intellectual might in the region. I contend that colonial botanists’ success hinged on scientific collaboration with collector-emissaries like Clemens.


Kathleen Gutierrez is a doctoral candidate in the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research and teaching interests include the history of botany, the environmental humanities, and modern Southeast Asian studies. Her dissertation is a history of colonial botany in the Philippines.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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