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Volume 16, Number 8
July 21, 2010



nature

Also in this section:
Frog killer caught in the act
Stellar shrapnel
New approaches to HIV prevention and treatment for children
Mexico's monarch butterfly program
What courage looks like in the brain
A rainy season night at the bus stop
Long-time Smithsonian scientist wins another major award
Rainy season garden scenes
Biodiversity's holy grail is in the soil
Tropical biodiversity is about the neighbors
100 years of Smithsonian's relationship with Panama



A team of Smithsonian scientists takes a break along the upper reaches of the Tuira River in Darien in 1912.

100 years of the Smithsonian's relationship with Panama
by Eric Jackson, historical photos from the Smithsonian

In 1904 the United States came to Panama in a big way, to build a canal through the newly independent Republic of Panama. Teddy Roosevelt was president and the Smithsonian Institution was headed by its secretary, astronomer Samuel P. Langley.

Langley expected that the canal would alter the fauna and flora and the migratory patterns of certain species through the isthmus, so he advocated a biological and geological survey of the canal area before the land was divided. But for various reasons this project never came to fruition during Roosevelt's time in office. The biggest of these reasons was probably Mr. Langley's death in 1906, after 19 years at the head of the Smithsonian.


Samuel Pierpont Langley

Roosevelt left office in 1909, with William Howard Taft coming to the White House as his successor. By that time the Smithsonian had a new secretary, paleontologist Charles D. Walcott. The initiative to study the canal area was revived, and immediately accepted by Taft.

Panama was going through some instability at the time, with the Conservative junta that was behind the 1903 separation from Colombia giving way to what was to become a long-running Liberal reign. Toward the end of 1910 Walcott's request went to former President Federico Boyd, who was Panama's foreign minister at the time, under Acting President Pablo Arosemena. Boyd made a counter-offer, which Walcott, Arosemena and Taft all accepted: Panama would approve and assist in the project, which would be extended to a study of the whole of Panama.


Charles Doolittle Walcott

This study still has some remote areas and these places were even harder to reach back then, so the studies missed some large parts of the country, particularly the Caribbean coast between Colon and Bocas del Toro and the Azuero Peninsula. Teams of scientists, mostly biologists, set out to explore, study and document Panama. The scholars came not only from the Smithsonian Institute itself, but also from various academic institutions, museums and the US Department of Agriculture. The three main aims of the study were to distinguish the wildlife on the Atlantic Side from that of the Pacific Side, to explore the relationships between Panama's fauna and flora with those of North America and South America, and to take an inventory of that which would be flooded by Gatun Lake. From a Panamanian perspective, it was to get as complete as possible a survey of the young republic's wildlife resources.

Thus began the relationship between the Republic of Panama and the Smithsonian Institution. Later, in 1921, the Smithsonian-allied Institute for the Study of Tropical America was founded, and in turn scientists from that convinced Canal Zone governor Jay Johnson Morrow to declare the largest island formed by high ground in the area flooded by Gatun Lake, Barro Colorado Island, to be a forest reserve and research laboratory. Part of the island still had private farms, which were bought out and allowed to revert to a wild state.

Barro Colorado became an important research station for scientists from the Smithsonian and many US universities. In a 1946 US governmental reorganization, the island's laboratory was made a division of the Smithsonian. That division changed its name to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute --- or by the acronym that its people use, STRI --- in 1966. Over the years it has established other research stations in Panama, attracted a world-class international team of scientists, and extended its studies to tropical places all around the world.

In this centennial year of the Smithsonian-Panama relationship, there are treaty provisions that cover aspects of STRI's existence and operations and some occasional sensitive international political issues around which to navigate. The biggest problem for STRI's relationship with Panama, it seems, is that many Panamanians are unaware of its existence and work. Maybe the most severe aspect of the problem is that this country's public schools rarely take advantage of the educational opportunities that STRI's presence offers to kids.


Also in this section:
Frog killer caught in the act
Stellar shrapnel
New approaches to HIV prevention and treatment for children
Mexico's monarch butterfly program
What courage looks like in the brain
A rainy season night at the bus stop
Long-time Smithsonian scientist wins another major award
Rainy season garden scenes
Biodiversity's holy grail is in the soil
Tropical biodiversity is about the neighbors
100 years of Smithsonian's relationship with Panama




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