150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America

Over the past century and a half, Smithsonian scientists have found a fertile field for collaborative research and exploration in Latin America. 150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America offers a window on the complex and rich relations among scientists throughout the Americas.


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Naturalist of the Americas: Alexander Wetmore

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Black and white photo of two men, Brother Apolinar Maria and Alexander Wetmore

Wetmore at Riacho Pilaga, Argentina, 1920
Alexander Wetmore, ornithologist and avian paleontologist, was the Smithsonian's sixth Secretary (1945-1952). As a young biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, Wetmore conducted extensive fieldwork in Latin America. He spent 1911 in Puerto Rico studying bird life, and later traveled through South America for two years investigating bird migration between continents.

Wetmore was appointed assistant secretary of the U.S. National Museum in 1925, where he served for twenty years. Opportunities for field investigations were limited during the Great Depression and World War II. Even so, Wetmore managed to conduct short trips to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia. Through his fieldwork, Wetmore established many friendships with Latin American scientists and he strongly encouraged the exchange of specimens and information. He corresponded faithfully with scholars such as Venezuelan botanist Henri Pittier, Brazilian ornithologist Olivario de Pinto, and Brother Apolinar María, the Colombian naturalist. Writing to Secretary Charles Greeley Abbot in 1941, Wetmore expressed delight in finally meeting Apolinar in Bogota after decades of correspondence.

A photo of the tools Wetmore used for collection his specimensTwo sheets of handwritten letter from Wetmore to AbbotWetmore joined cooperative conservation efforts in Latin America when he was appointed U.S. representative to the Pan American Union's Inter-American Committee of Experts on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in 1940. That year he also served as secretary-general of the Eighth American Scientific Congress. In 1946, as Smithsonian Secretary, Wetmore oversaw the transfer of the Barro Colorado Island research station in Panama to the Smithsonian. Deeply concerned about the conservation of Latin American wildlife, he helped to organize the Pan-American Section of the International Council for Bird Preservation.

In the mid-1940s, Wetmore began a research program that would occupy his energies for the remainder of his life. Between 1946 and 1966 he traveled to Panama every year to make an exhaustive survey of the birds of the isthmus.

Wetmore and Perrygo near Chico, Panama, 1949

Title page Wetmore's book and a picture of two woodpeckersDrawing of male brown quetzal (bird) with long tail feathersThis work culminated in the publication of his magnum opus, The Birds of the Republic of Panama -- the last of four volumes was published posthumously in 1984. During his extended stays in remote Indian villages, where the lanky North American was known as "Alejandro Grande," Wetmore learned local customs such as hunting methods. He worked in close association with the scientific community. In 1973, a canopy bridge in the Bayano River Basin in Panama was named in his honor, and he was made an honorary member of many Latin American scientific societies.

Wetmore donated his enormous natural history collections to the Smithsonian. Included were 26,058 bird and mammal skins from the Americas; 4,363 skeletal and anatomical specimens; and 201 clutches of birds' eggs. Fifty-six new genera, species, and sub-species of birds (both recent and fossil), mammals, amphibians, insects, mollusks, and plants were named in his honor -- an assemblage Wetmore called his "private zoo." He was the first to describe 189 species and subspecies of recent birds, mostly from Central and northern South America. An authority on the extinct Pleistocene birds of the West Indies, he had studied fossil avifaunas from Puerto Rico, Haiti, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Avian paleontologist Pierce Brodkorb, when dedicating a newly discovered fossil bird to Wetmore in 1959, stated that he was "responsible for all previous knowledge of fossil birds of the West Indies."

Honorary Membership Certificate belonging to Wetmore