How is a summer in Washington D.C. like a tropical vacation? It’s not just the hundred-degree temperatures, humidity, and hurricane force winds! This summer, a predoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives allowed me to study the historical records of the tropical research station at Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama.
Today, BCI is part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), an internationally respected center for the long-term study of tropical biodiversity. The photographs here show how far the modern institution has come from the original modest laboratory building built in 1924. These images, and the larger history of BCI, raise many questions. Why did BCI survive, when many similar tropical stations established did not? What can such a place tell us about the role of science in US-Latin American relations? How did American biologists’ encounters with the tropics through their time at BCI shape their scientific work? To begin to answer these questions I spent the summer in the SIA reading room digging through thousands of pages of letters, meeting minutes, financial records, guestbooks, and field notes. (As I like to tell people, I make a living reading dead people’s mail.) As an island formed by the flooding of the Panama Canal, BCI was located throughout most of its history within the U.S. controlled territory: the Panama Canal Zone. During the 20s and 30s, the Canal’s role as a hub of global transportation, plus reduced fares for scientists on United Fruit’s ships, put the station within the reach of American biologists. BCI provided access to a tropical environment that few U.S. researchers would otherwise have experienced—at least not without the much greater effort and expense of a full-fledged expedition. Under the supervision of James Zetek (1923-1956), the first director of the BCI research station, the construction of trails and permanent buildings on the island enabled researchers to combine both laboratory and field techniques. Scientists who visited BCI were freed to concentrate on their work by the labor of Panamanians who prepared their food, maintained equipment, patrolled for poachers, and assisted in experiments and specimen preparation. With a place to eat, stay and study the station began to grow. The idea behind BCI was actually quite radical. Those who helped to establish and promote the station argued that the understanding of biology being built in American laboratories was faulty. Very few American biologists had much knowledge or experience of tropical conditions, yet the ecology and environments of the tropics raised questions that could not simply be extrapolated from the better-studied temperate zone. This dilemma was made more urgent as the US increasingly relied on the exploitation of the natural resources of tropical countries. Whether to make tropical agriculture more efficient or to understand why rainforests harbor such a variety of species—tropical problems required residence in the tropics. BCI was meant to be a place where American biologists could experience the tropics for themselves and their visits often made a deep impression on them. Remembrances of the island, as the primatologist Clarence Ray Carpenter wrote, are strongly “mixed with both poetry and science” (C. R. Carpenter to L. Carmichael, February 8, 1954, SIA RU 135, Box 7, Folder 2). As I go on with this work, part of my dissertation research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I will continue to investigate how experiences at this laboratory in the jungle helped shape American biology. You can see more images of STRI and learn about their collections on the STRI website and at the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center.
Megan Raby is the Predoctoral fellow of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.