The Tropical Travels of George C. Wheeler - Part I

This is the first 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.

Workers on Barro Colorado Island, Panama - George C. Wheeler in center with his arms folded, 1924, N

On May 31st 1924, a young scientist by the name of George C. Wheeler boarded a steamship in Brooklyn, New York. Five days later, he was in the Caribbean for the first time. He writes:

June 4, Docked at Havana at about 7:30 a.m. The city is beautiful from the harbor in the morning. One of the first things one sees is the huge electric sign ‘Ford’ on the assembling plant. One gets a good view of Morro Castle on entering the harbor.

Went on an automobile sight-seeing trip with the cruise passengers… University – beautiful buildings. Old cathedral. New cathedral. Paseo de Marti. Parque Central. Parque de la India. Cigar factory. Malecón (seawall). Piña Colada (strained pineapple juice) very good – 20 cents.

Next stop – beer garden near the cervecería where Cerveza Tropical is brewed. The beer is free here and freely do the Americans imbibe. Next to the country to see pineapples and bananas growing. Country magnificent. Mariano district – beach.

Menu cover for the United Fruit Company's Great White Fleet in 1924. Record Unit 9560 - Oral history

In his journal, in shorthand, George C. Wheeler reveals himself to be a man of science and also a man on vacation. On his first day in the Tropics, he went sightseeing and drinking with a group of tourists. The next day, June 5th, he was in the field collecting ants on the outskirts of Havana. He was on a research fellowship with the United Fruit Company (UFCO) to study and collect insects. Over the course of three months, Wheeler studied and toured his way across the Caribbean – from Cuba to Costa Rica to Panama.

The record of that trip (Record Unit 9560 - Oral history interview with George C. Wheeler, 1989) is part of the Smithsonian Institutional Archives. It includes George C. Wheeler's travel diary, personal correspondence and photos, along with scientific pamphlets, maps, and an oral interview. As a predoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I studied the tropical travels of U.S. scientists to better understand the relationship between science and tourism in the Caribbean. During the summer of 1924, George C. Wheeler traveled and drank with tourists, studied with fellow scientists, and relied on countless locals and foreign nationals to produce his travel experience. 

Postcard from Cuba. Record Unit 9560 - Oral history interview with George C. Wheeler, 1989, Smithson Entangled History, Science and Tourism

Wheeler's Caribbean trip highlights an important yet overlooked aspect of U.S.-Latin American history. Social and natural scientists often think of scientific fieldwork and tourism as distinct kinds of travel. Wheeler's personal journey, however, shows science and tourism to be deeply entangled in the early twentieth century.

His presence on a tourist steamer was not an anomaly. U.S. scientists and tourists shared modes of transportation, labor, and information throughout the twentieth century. On the ships of UFCO's "Great White Fleet" passengers luxuriously traveled and mingled on the upper "Promenade," "Cabin," and "Saloon" decks. Down below – on those same ships – billions of pounds of bananas, coffee, and cacao returned to markets in the United States. Tourists and scientists followed the same lines of transportation that brought bananas to U.S. consumers and colonial officials and businessmen to Latin America.

Map of the Routes of the United Fruit Company Steam Ship Service The microcosm of Wheeler's experience – as a 27 year-old white-male scientist traveling in the Tropics – illuminates a larger history. With the War of 1898 and the building of the Panama Canal (1904-1914), the U.S.' southern "frontier" moved to the forefront of public interest. In the 1910s and 1920s, there was an immense thirst for knowledge about newly acquired territories in the Caribbean region: Puerto Rico, Haiti, Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica. In this context, U.S. teachers and researchers with international experience became important sources of information. How could one govern, exploit, or enjoy the fruits of U.S. expansion without knowing about the region's culture and nature? Scientists like George Wheeler had the infrastructural and financial backing to travel, in large part, because of the Caribbean's heightened geopolitical and commercial relevance to the U.S.

The knowledge scientists gained from their travels was useful to the U.S. government, the scientific community, U.S. companies, and also future tourists. When Wheeler returned home to Syracuse University, he became a recognized expert – a sort of local celebrity. Newspapers published flattering articles about him and he received a number of invitations to share his story. For the student Science Club, he gave a lecture entitled "Biological Work in Central America." For the Faculty Club, he gave a similar presentation with "illustrations."

As a young Professor at Syracuse University, George C. Wheeler was invited to give a number of talks Wheeler brought the Tropics home to a domestic audience. Although the specific notes from his lectures are not in the Archives, a collection guide at Rice University – "George C. Wheeler: Correspondence, Scrapbook, and Biology Lecture and Laboratory Notes, 1915-1957" – affirms that Wheeler's travel experience supplied him with lecture material and entertaining stories for decades to come. His journal, which is at the Archives, documents some of his more memorable travel encounters. Personal observations and photos, supplemented with maps and scientific data, became the basis of a new tropical expertise.

Travelers like Wheeler were more than objective men of science. During the first decades of the twentieth century, entertainment was interwoven into science and teaching. Scientists became cultural leaders, introducing the U.S. public to new and old ideas about the Tropics.

To learn more about Wheeler's travels, see the upcoming Part II of this article, "From Plantations to Islands of Science: Travels in Costa Rica and Panama."

Related Resources

Correction: The 1924 map of the routes of the United Fruit Company Steam Ship Service originally posted  in 2013 was incorrect. The image has been changed to the correct map. - Hillary Brady, 3/28/2017. 

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.