Amy Beatrice Holdsworth Greenwell was one of the 23 grandchildren of Henry Nicholas Greenwell, a soldier-turned-merchant who arrived in Hawai’i in the 1850’s. Despite a series of rough starts, Henry bestowed his family a 36,000 acre legacy when he died, a small portion of which eventually passed on to Amy.
An observant and intelligent student, Amy graduated Gamma Phi Beta from Stanford University in 1942. She had always possessed a passion for Hawaiian studies, but interrupted her education to serve as a Red Cross Nurse at Queen’s Hospital during WWII. After the war she traveled to New York where she worked with Otto Degener at the Botanical Gardens on one of the authoritative volumes on Hawaiian plants, Flora Hawaiiensis.
Amy Greenwell had a great appreciation for both the natural environment and the Hawaiian culture, and on her return to Hawai’i in 1947, she started working closely with the Bishop Museum and its archeological projects. In 1953 on one of her expeditions she discovered some ancient fishhooks at KaLae and in doing so brought the now-famous Pu’u Ali’i sand dune site to the attention of professional archeologists. This site lead to the discovery of some 1,600 fish hooks of 65 varieties that were carbon dated to 950 A.D. which at the time was the earliest dated archeology in Hawai’i. In addition she did archeological and botanical surveys for such significant sites as Pu’uhōnua ‘o Hōnaunau and Lapakahi.
Despite her archeological accomplishments, Amy Greenwell is best known as a botanist. Over her lifetime she wrote many articles on both native and other tropical plants, some of which include Taro – With Special Reference to its Culture and Uses in Hawaii, Rose Growing in Hawai’i, and Hawaiian Violets. In her later life she lived at her 10 acre Kealakekua property. She slowly transformed this land into a “pre-Cookian” garden, her own term implying the days before Captain Cook, the first recorded white man in Hawai‘i. She planted scores of native and Polynesian introduced plants among intact remnants of Hawaiian agricultural formations
In her free time Amy dabbled in other sciences such as meteorology, the study of weather patterns, and speleology, the exploration and study of cave systems. On these subjects she wrote various articles and even gave regular, weekly radio broadcasts. She reported surface weather and UAP, or unusual aerial phenomena, to the National Weather Service for over twenty years. Oh, and I almost forgot, she bred pure breed pug dogs.
When she died in 1974 at the age of 53, she left her Kealakekua property to the Bishop Museum as an educational and cultural resource for locals and visitors alike to revisit the Hawaiian past and see the environmental splendors that ancient Hawai’i had to offer.