- Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation and Latin America
Over the last decade an assortment of edited books appraising the development of science under imperialism has appeared, challenging standard narratives that depict scientific gains as the noble exception to the otherwise destructive military and economic expansionism of imperial powers. The result of a one-day conference at the Rockefeller Archive Center, Missionaries of Science joins this critical literature and elegantly avoids the trap of oversimplification. A focus on the Rockefeller Foundation’s activities in a single region of the world sets this work apart from other collections by permitting an interweaving of themes far beyond the introduction.
The book’s seven essays—which examine the relationship between yellow fever and nationalism in Brazil and Mexico, the evolution of genetics and physiology research in various countries, the Mexican test case for the so-called Green Revolution, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s own surveys of science and society in Latin America—offer the perspective not just of the “donors” but also of the “recipients.” Scientists, public health officers, farmers, bureaucrats, political officials, local associations, and peasants within Latin America did not passively accept Rockefeller philanthropy but variously shaped, resisted, accommodated, rejected, welcomed, and modified it, albeit within the constraints of institutional relationships and power differences. In part this more dynamic understanding of the Rockefeller Foundation’s activities in Latin America stems from methodological thoroughness. Unlike many of the researchers who have used the Rockefeller Archive Center since it opened twenty years ago, virtually all of the authors of Missionaries of Science conducted extensive primary research in Latin American archives.
The yellow fever chapters illustrate the important part that large-scale disease campaigns played in nation- and institution-building, in the case of Steven Williams’s research on Brazil, and how public health, diplomacy, and war exigencies led to highly different strategies and local reactions in two regions of Mexico, as Armando Sol campaigns played in nation- and institution-building, in the case of Steven Williams’s research on Brazil, and how public health, diplomacy, and war exigencies led to highly dits enormous scale and the commercial, scientific, and political significance of the disease.
Also engagingly paired are two essays on the Mexican Agricultural Program. Deborah Fitzgerald argues that, notwithstanding Rockefeller rhetoric supportive of peasant cultivators, the program was only relevant to large, American-style farms. Joseph Cotter, in contrast, holds that the program succeeded precisely because it fulfilled the political, scientific, and economic needs of Mexican agriculture.
The chapters on scientific research highlight the Rockefeller Foundation’s interest in supporting key institutions and investigators in order to “make the peaks higher” (p. 161; see also p. 17). As Thomas Glick demonstrates for the case of genetics in Brazil, the Foundation carefully managed relatively small grants [End Page 137] and fellowships in order to promote particular research agendas. Marcos Cueto shows that the attempt to support a few serious and talented scientists as a kind of trickle-down scientific development strategy failed to address the social, cultural, and political context in Latin American countries. As is evident in Cueto’s chapter on the Foundation’s surveys, divergences in cultural values framed much of the interaction between the philanthropy and Latin America on science and development.
There are a few matters that merited greater attention than they received. The copyeditors missed numerous minor but annoying spelling and grammatical mistakes throughout the volume. Another problem, certainly not unique to this study, was the failure to convert historical dollars into real dollar amounts; this is especially important because expenditures are traced over time and totaled, yielding misleading figures. Finally, it is unfortunate that, other than on the dust cover, none of the vivid photographs available in the Rockefeller Archive Center’s collections and in dozens of Latin American archives were reproduced in this volume.
These small criticisms aside, Missionaries of Science is a valuable addition to the scholarship on science and imperialism and, particularly, the history of science in Latin America. Many of the questions raised...