The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Education of George C. Wheeler - Part III
This is the third and final part of a three-part series on George C. Wheeler and the relationship of science and tourism in the Caribbean by the Archives' former Research Fellow, Blake Scott.
Equally important is the educational backstory leading up to Wheeler's Caribbean trip in 1924. How did he become interested in traveling to the American Tropics to study insects?
The line distinguishing culture from science is often nebulous. Every scientist (there are no exceptions) learned to value science and nature in culturally specific ways before he or she became a scientist. "All of culture and all of nature," as the sociologist Bruno Latour reminds us, "get churned up every day" [Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993)]. From the SI Archives, for example, we know that Dr. Alexander Wetmore, the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian (1945-1952), came to appreciate ornithology as a young boy after visiting his local library and after a particularly memorable family vacation to Florida in 1894. The birds and the places he came to value emerged from personal experience. How might the epistemological path—from youth to scientific professional—influence the ecological and social values of travel?
At the time George Wheeler left for the Tropics, he was a recently graduated Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard. At the University's Bussey Institution, he specialized in the morphology and taxonomy of ants, under the guidance of the famed entomologist William Morton Wheeler (of no familial relation). W. M. Wheeler's work has been fundamental to the development of tropical biology. His theorizing of how individual organisms can live and function collectively as a single "superorganism," such as in an ant colony or on a coral reef, is key to our contemporary understanding of biodiversity.
As a professor and scientist, W. M. Wheeler also embraced and spread the concept of "organicism," which he believed to be nature's principle of organization. Each living organism had a specific role in the organic world. Natural scientists and big game hunters, some of whom studied under W. M. Wheeler, used this concept to justify their collecting habits. Historian and biologist Donna Haraway explains, "there was a hierarchy of game according to species: lions, elephants, and giraffes far outranked wild asses or antelope. The gorilla was the supreme achievement, almost a definition of perfection in the heart of the garden at the moment of origin" [Donna Haraway, "Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-36." Social Text, no. 11 (Winter 1984/85), p. 19-64.]. This naturalized hierarchy, which also applied to the flora and fauna of the American tropics, not only structured how scientists understood non-human "nature," but also the way they interacted with the human world. The organization of society, they believed, followed the same principles. Race, gender, and class distinctions—defining social roles and privileges—were often understood in similar organicist terms in the first decades of the twentieth century.
George Wheeler, for example, would not have had the opportunity to study biology at Harvard and travel to the Caribbean as a scientific guest of the United Fruit Company and the Barro Colorado Island Laboratory, if he hadn't been a white man of particular social standing. At scientific clubs like the Cosmos and Explorer's Club if a woman or a man of color entered the organization's doors it was most likely as a servant, like the famous African-American author Zora Neale Hurston in the 1920s. "I learned things from holding the hands of men like that," Hurston would later comment [Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1942)].
George Wheeler benefited greatly from his association with W. M. Wheeler. When George started his graduate career at Harvard, he conferred with Dr. Wheeler about what to study. Initially he was unsure of what to do for his dissertation. Although W. M. Wheeler never explicitly suggested ants, their close relationship and the elder Wheeler's reputation in myrmecology, undoubtedly influenced the younger man's decision. George explains:
After I'd been there a few months, he [W. M. Wheeler] made me his graduate assistant and paid me $50 a month, which was in 1919 or 1920, which was big pay in those days … I worked in his office, did drawing, photography, all sorts of work on ants for him, in addition to research.
After George graduated from Harvard and became a young professor at Syracuse University, W. M. Wheeler continued to support his studies:
I'd never been to the Tropics, and he [W. M. Wheeler] wanted to give me a chance to go there, so he arranged for a fellowship with the United Fruit Company. I worked up the literature on cacao insects to pay for my expenses to Central America, which the United Fruit Company paid.
Dr. Wheeler made sure his student protégé could afford school. He also introduced him to fieldwork in the Tropics, arranging a deal with the Fruit Company.
Jungle Laboratory, Barro Colorado Island
W. M. Wheeler had his reasons for sending students to the American Tropics. The year before George's trip, Dr. Wheeler, along with a group of elite scientists and wealthy patrons, opened the Barro Colorado Island (BCI) Laboratory in Panama. Dr. Wheeler and his colleagues believed that the future of biology in the U.S. depended on having an accessible research station in Tropical, Latin America. They wanted to make it possible, as fellow BCI founder and Harvard Professor Dr. Thomas Barbour explains:
For the teacher of biology with a small salary to have the thrill of Wallace, Bates, and Spruce when they first set foot in the Amazon Jungle… To see these trees (the great espave trees) and to walk our carefully marked trails provide all the illusion of exploration, but with this great difference: we have pure drinking water. [Thomas Barbour, Naturalist at Large (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1943)]
The same year BCI was established, 1923, W. M. Wheeler wrote a biting article, "The Dry-Rot of Our Academic Biology." In it, Wheeler expressed his disgust with the conservatism of some U.S. academics:
Not only do many of us wear out our most valuable tissues converting the graduate students into mere vehicles of our own interests, prepossessions and specialties but nearly all of us fail to excite in them that spirit of adventure which has in the past yielded such remarkable results in the development of our science. The finest example of this lack of vision is seen in the stolid indifference, especially in our eastern universities, to exploration and research in the remote portions of our own country, in foreign lands and especially in the tropics. We have in the Philippines and at our very doors in the West Indies, Mexico, Central and South America the most marvelous faunas and floras in the world, but we still persuade our traveling fellows to cut more sections in the laboratories of Professor Rindskopf of Berlin or Professor Himmelschwanz of Leipzig, because thirty or forty years ago we were sent to the same bemooste Haupter. [William Morton Wheeler, "The Dry-Rot of Our Academic Biology," Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, Vol. 9, No. 3 (March 1923), p. 8-10.]
Wheeler not only envisioned, but helped to enact his own dream for the future of biology. The Barro Colorado Island Laboratory—a man-made island in the middle of the Panama Canal—has had a huge role in how scientists, students, and the U.S. public understand the tropical environment. From museum exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History in New York to popular books, BCI has been a vital source for the production and diffusion of knowledge (The Barro Colorado Island Laboratory has had a prominent place in travel literature throughout the twentieth century. There have also been thousands of scientific publications generated from research on BCI. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute lists 461 publications in their formal bibliography. It does not include a full listing, however.).
This spread of knowledge is an important task, but we must ask ourselves 'whose' knowledge did scientists diffuse? How did they obtain and organize their information? What do those processes, in turn, reflect about society? Who decided what was most important to study and exhibit? And consequently, how might the character of this diffusion influence the way U.S. Americans think about and travel to the American Tropics?
During a recent visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I was surprised to see that Asian Peoples, African peoples, South American Peoples, Northwest Coast Indians, and almost everyone else except for "white" people, were seamlessly mixed with non-human exhibits. White Europeans and Euro-Americans were presented as ostensibly apart from the natural world.
George C. Wheeler in Texas
Returning to Wheeler's education, we should also note that before BCI or even Harvard, he studied biology as an undergraduate student. At the Rice Institute in Texas (1915-1918):
I had my beginning course in biology with [Julian Huxley] … I used to go on field trips with a biology club. Then some of the advanced students had a conference with him an hour a week, to talk about anything we wanted to. This was the course.
Huxley was responsible for my going into biology … My German professor at Rice was urging me to go into German. I went to Huxley and told him, and he said, 'I think you’ll do all right in biology.' So that was the deciding factor, Julian Huxley's statement.
That "statement" meant a lot to an impressionable undergraduate. Julian Huxley was an evolutionary biologist and eugenicist, who came from a distinguished family of British intellectuals. Julian's brother was the author, Aldous Huxley, and their grandfather, Thomas Huxley, famously defended the theory of evolution in the 1860s. He was known as "Darwin's Bulldog." Julian Huxley's own scientific contributions shaped the "evolutionary synthesis" of Mendelian genetics and the evolutionary theory of natural selection. The organizations he supported have also been extremely important to the modern development of cultural and eco-tourism. He was the first Director of UNESCO (1946), and a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund (1961). Huxley introduced young George Wheeler to the field of biology.
From the Caribbean Tropics to U.S. classrooms
By bringing the material practice of George Wheeler's 1924 trip to the Caribbean (Part I and II) into dialogue with his formal education (Part III), we can begin to trace the long genealogy of thought and action that shaped "Western" perceptions of tropical nature. There were myriad people and places—from the ships, and cities and forests of the Caribbean to the scientific labs and classrooms of Great Britain, Texas, and Harvard—that helped to produce U.S. traveler experiences. Through George Wheeler's story, for example, we can imagine how the ideas of scientists like Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley passed from professors like William Morton Wheeler and Julian Huxley to the next generation of students and travelers. As one of his former students reminisced, "for me, a myrmecologist at heart since childhood, George Wheeler is a living and personal link to the 'Classical Period' of North American myrmecology" [James C. Trager, "George C. Wheeler – An Appreciation," Advances in Myrmecology (New York: E. J. Brill, 1988): p. xvii-xxvii].
Wheeler was a living point of connection between a scientific establishment of professors and museum researchers and an American public eager to learn about and experience seemingly exotic locales. He lived "in-the-middle" between science and tourism. But of course he wasn't alone in this role. The Smithsonian Institution organized dozens of expeditions to Central America and the Caribbean during the first half of the twentieth century. As part of the Smithsonian's mission to increase and diffuse knowledge, scientists and collectors traveled south and returned home to tell their stories. They became admired experts sought after by museums, classrooms, popular magazines like National Geographic, and news and radio programs like "The World is Yours." Their travel stories became part of a modern age of exotic parables.
Yet in their retelling, many of their social dependencies and everyday interactions disappeared from the narrative. Far from entering a 'pristine' tropical nature, natural scientists depended on a highly-mitigated and hierarchical network of social and ecological relationships to create their travel experiences. George Wheeler's trip, instead of being a unique adventure, is exemplary of a complex and interconnected history linking imperialism, science and tourism in the Caribbean.
How many students and future travelers did scientists like George Wheeler influence during their long careers as scientists, community leaders, and teachers? With what hopes and expectations did tourists travel to the Caribbean?
- The Tropical Travels of George C. Wheeler - Part I, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- From Plantations to Islands of Science: Travels in Costa Rica and Panama - Part II, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The History of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
- Record Unit 9560 - Oral history interview with George C. Wheeler, 1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives