The Smithsonian first focused on Panama as an important site for studying tropical biology when it launched the 1910–1912 Biological Survey of the Panama Canal Zone to provide a baseline of information about the natural environment prior to the area’s disruption due to the Panama Canal construction. For two years, the Smithsonian coordinated a systematic survey of the region and collected specimens for the U.S. National Museum.
In 1923, the Institute for Research in Tropical America, a group of private foundations and universities under the auspices of the National Research Council, first established a research laboratory on Barro Colorado Island, Panama Canal Zone, in order to investigate the flora and fauna of tropical America. It was called the Canal Zone Biological Area, and its first directors were James Zetek and Karl Koford.
Beginning in the 1940s, Smithsonian Secretary and ornithologist, Alexander Wetmore, began annual field trips to Panama to study the birds of the region, resulting in his four volume work, The Birds of Panama. Wetmore was deeply interested in the fate of the small Barro Colorado Island station, visiting it every year. In 1940, an act of Congress placed the facility under control of a board composed of the heads of certain government executive departments and prominent scientists. After World War II, the Canal Zone Biological Area experienced a financial crisis due to the loss of private donors. As a result, in 1946 the operation was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution and was dedicated to conducting long-term studies in tropical biology.
In 1957, Martin Moynihan began the expansion of the station into other habitats in Panama; other tropical countries; and into related fields, such as ethology and anthropology. In 1966, the station was renamed the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and expanded its scope by extending its research to other areas in the tropics, and by establishing a marine sciences program with laboratories on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Panama. In 1974, under Director Ira Rubinoff, these broader research interests were legally recognized by the Government of the Republic of Panama and were later codified in the Panama Canal treaty of 1977. In 1985, the Government of Panama granted the Institute status as an International Mission or non-governmental organization (NGO) in order to further facilitate its mission to study and preserve Panama’s natural environment.
Since 1973, the Institute has continued to expand its work in the tropics, and now conducts research throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Today, research is conducted throughout the Isthmus of Panama at terrestrial and marine field stations equipped with modern laboratories and dormitory facilities. Central offices are located at the Earl S. Tupper Research and Conference Center in Panama City, which opened in 1990.
- Chronology of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
- Bibliography of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
- Images of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Picture Highlights of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
- Additional Records and Collections of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Digital Archive
- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Website
- More about the History of the Tropical Research Institute
- Panama: An Interactive Traveler’s Journal (Learn more about the Smithsonian and Panama’s cooperation in tropical biology research), Smithsonian Latino Center
- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Webcasts and Videos