Right now, we’re in the midst of celebrating Women’s History Month and the centennial of women’s suffrage by utilizing our collections to showcase the stories of women at the Smithsonian. At the Archives, a big part of that effort includes our oral history collection, which helps us to better understand the history of women at the Smithsonian in their own words. But what do we do when we don’t have an oral history interview with someone essential to the history of the Institution? This question really came to the foreground while I was processing a collection of oral histories with women administrators and educators at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. One name came up again and again, a name not in our oral history collection: Adela Gómez.
Hired as a “clerk typist,” native Panamanian Adela Gómez started working for the Canal Zone Biological Area (CZBA) in 1945, the year before it became part of the Smithsonian. James Zetek, the resident manager of CZBA who hired Gómez, immediately recognized her talents, and, in his words, he pulled “her away from where she was working.” When Zetek became critically ill and left the Barro Colorado Island to receive care, Gómez took over the operations, and it became clear he hired the right person for the job. From August 1953 until March 1954, Gómez ran CZBA’s day-to-day operations and coordinated with the visiting scientists. In a letter to the Assistant Secretary John E. Graf, Gómez wrote, “You may rest assured that I will take care of everything.” And she did. The 1954 annual report lauded Gómez for her “heroic job” in Zetek’s absence.
Gómez was so effective in her role and so integral to the operations that she was consistently promoted, for the organization could not afford to lose her. Gómez’s advancement was a direct result of her work ethic and ability to produce for STRI, but also required the vocal support of her North American white male superiors. According to the records in her personnel file, these men, like Secretaries Alexander Wetmore and Leonard Carmichael, repeatedly vouched for her talents and commitment to the Smithsonian. Gómez was promoted from clerk typist to biological aide in 1954, to assistant to resident scientist in 1957, to administrative officer in 1962, and to special assistant to the director in 1970. All of this happened in the 1960s and 1970s when STRI was expanding and more women were joining the ranks. Gómez utilized her position of authority to hire a significant group of Panamanian and Latin American women administrators and educators.
Gómez strategically hired young professional, bilingual women like Elena Lombardo, Mercedes Arroyo, Gloria Maggiori, and Georgina de Alba.
Gómez asked Gloria Maggiori to fill a temporary position at STRI in 1961. Mercedes Arroyo received her job offer at STRI from Gómez in 1965. Georgina de Alba was asked by Gómez to fill in while Arroyo was on maternity leave. Elena Lombardo started as Adela Gómez’s assistant in 1969. All of these women, hired by Gómez, went on to be critical members of the STRI staff for upwards of thirty years. These local women cemented STRI’s relationship to Panama so much so that STRI continues to thrive decades after the 1977 treaty turned the canal over to Panama. All of their oral history interviews include memories of Adela Gómez’s leadership, work ethic, and mentorship.
ARROYO: Mrs. Gómez was the provider of everything. You needed something from the government, she was there solving the problem. If you needed equipment, she was there looking for it.
MAGGIORI: Mrs. Gómez was STRI’s angel. I don’t want to be biased because of the fact she was related, because she was an excellent, excellent relative, but she was a small, very jolly person, always in a good mood, and she was so helpful to everybody. I mean, STRI really was her family, even though she had a real family.
LOMBARDO: She would be the connection, the person. I learned a lot from her because of her style, the manner she handled with the people, and how diplomatic she was all the time, very easygoing. Everything she put forth to obtain for the Smithsonian and its researchers, visitors, etc., she was very successful and positive.
It is clear from the interviews with these women that Gómez, who brought them into this organization, set an indelible example as an effective and diplomatic administrator. That same impact is also evident in the archival collections we have here at the Archives. Unfortunately, we do not have an oral history interview with Gómez. She repeatedly declined the offer because she saw herself as a confidential secretary and did not want to break the trust given to her by the Smithsonian. In the absence of her oral history, we can draw on the words and recollections of the women she mentored and encouraged. We can pair archival research with remembrances of her life in our oral history collection and begin to understand her life, work, and commitment to STRI.
- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute History Interviews, 2010, 2013, Record Unit 9624, Smithsonian Institution Archives