Olga F. Linares
Smithsonian Institution Archives Oral History Collection, SIA009624
Olga Francesca Linares (1936 -2014) was an anthropologist with a thirty-five-year tenure at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). Born in Panama, Linares moved to the United States to attend boarding school and then received a B.A. in anthropology from Vassar College in 1958 and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard University in 1964. After teaching at both Harvard and Pennsylvania State University, Linares returned to Panama to conduct research at STRI in 1973. Interested in human interaction with the environment, Linares dedicated her research at STRI to the Jola, rural rice farmers in southern Senegal in West Africa. For her work, Linares earned a membership in the National Academy of Sciences, which made her only one of five STRI scientists to receive that honor.
Linares’ interview reflects her love of STRI, an institution she felt consistently supported by and that invested in her research throughout her tenure. Although she retired in 2008, Linares continued to pursue her passion for research as a scientist emerita until her death in 2014. Her oral history offers insight into the life of one of the dedicated scientists living in Panama and working at STRI.
Session 1 00:02:08 – 00:03:14
Anyhow, I did graduate, majored in anthropology. Why anthropology? Because in the area where I was born in Panama, there’s a very important indigenous group called the Ngöbés, used to be called the Guaymí. I grew up amongst seeing Indians coming down from the Highlands, and I was very interested in the lifestyle and, in fact, traveled quite a lot when I was young in the Highlands to visit this indigenous group.
Anyhow, I majored in anthropology at Vassar, then took a year off and worked with the Fulbright Commission in Peru, doing mostly archaeology. Then after that year, I was accepted at Harvard [University], where I did my Ph.D. in a combined . . . a focus on social anthropology and archaeology.
“This is a world of women professionals.”
Session 1 00:05:24 - 00:06:34
HENSON: Why did you decide to apply for a grant back to Panama?
LINARES: Well, mostly because I wanted to do some research in my country. It was a very interesting combined ethnographic and archaeological work comparing the history of adaptations to both coasts of western Panama, the Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. While I was there or while I was here, I gave a couple of lectures at STRI [Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute] and was offered a position here. Actually, it was Ira Rubinoff who was the director at the time. No, he was not the director; he was the assistant director.
I resigned from the University of Pennsylvania, which promptly offered me a full position, which I very delightedly declined. [LAUGHS] This is a world of women professionals. I came to Panama to work for STRI. Then a year later married the director, who was Martin [H.] Moynihan. Martin and I had a wonderful life for twenty-six years
“The freedom to pursue research”
Session 1 00:16:00 – 00:17:25
Well, the one thing that I loved about STRI is the freedom to pursue research in whatever you really were passionate about. My real passion has always been Africa, and they gave me all of the means and encouragement to continue. The work I do is in the interface between social organization and human ecological processes. My main interest is on agrarian problems in Africa. Mainly because Africa is the one continent that has failed to increase its food production, and there is a great need to know what has happened to the productivity of the people like the Jola, who I started working with in ’64, ’66, and who were then surplus producers of rice and other crops, etc. Now they were completely dependent upon rice imports and the sale of their ground nuts or peanuts. So, it’s that trajectory that has always fascinated me.
“...appreciated and supported...”
Session 1 00:26:41 – 00:28:29
LINARES: Well, the one thing, Dr. Henson, which is so good about STRI, it still today is the philosophy of Martin. Martin Moynihan had a philosophy which you hire the best young people you find, you give them the freedom to do whatever interests them, and you find money for them to do so. I found this very much a part of - at the time, there weren’t many big projects or all this, which are good, but I’m still a great believer in individual research. I had the freedom to do it and had the grants whenever I needed them. Up to last year when I went back to Senegal, Dr. [Eldredge] Bermingham found resources for me to go back. I’ve always had this tremendous feeling of freedom and of being really appreciated and supported. So, I think STRI is really a wonderful place.
HENSON: Remarkable organization.
LINARES: It’s a remarkable organization, and it is vibrant, and we have lots of interesting visitors. It’s very important and very good students on fellowships. We have, despite being in Panama, or maybe because of it, away from the sort of politicking that goes on in places like Washington [D.C.], we are able to prosper in the directions that we love and we want to.
“I didn’t study anthropology to stay at home.”
Session 1 01:16:45 – 01:17:50
I get the most satisfaction of traveling. I remember people saying, “Well, why didn’t you become a Panamanian anthropologist?” I didn’t study anthropology to stay at home. Absolutely not. I love the traveling, seeing the new people, and the learning of how cultural beliefs of all sorts really shape people’s attitudes towards each other and towards the natural world surrounding them. I’ve always had a great interest in people. This is why I didn’t go into archaeology, etc., because I thought, you know, I mean, really archaeology is not for me. My interest is in discovering new worlds and new aspects to human behavior.
Read more about Linares on our website.
- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute History Interviews, 2010, 2013, Record Unit 9624, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “Wonderful Women Wednesday: Dr. Olga Linares,” by Effie Kapsalis, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
And discover even more about Linares’ career and legacy around the web.