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The Americas 58.4 (2002) 577-600

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Invading Arcadia:
Women Scientists in the Field in Latin America, 1900-1950*

Pamela M. Henson
Institutional History Division
Smithsonian Institution Archives


"Let us keep a place where real research men can find quiet, keen intellectual stimulation, freedom from any outside distraction." 1 This was the response of a prominent North American naturalist opposed to a 1924 proposal to build facilities for women at the Barro Colorado Island Biological Laboratory in Panama. In the first decades of the twentieth-century, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and as the United States built the Panama Canal, the American tropics became a major focus for North American politics and natural history, with government funding and logistical support from the military for scientific expeditions. As the North American western frontier closed, the New World tropics—or Neotropics—assumed the role that the West had played for an earlier generation of nineteenth-century explorers. In a post-Darwinian world, a field trip to the tropics with its rich biodiversity had become a rite of passage and a route to fame for young North American naturalists. And in the decades during and after the successful campaign for women's suffrage in the United States, tensions between men and women ran high, in the home, at the ballot box, and at the field station. 2

Latin American fieldwork became crucial for North American women naturalists working on organisms that migrated to Latin America or that were distributed across the Americas. The first women to conduct fieldwork in the [End Page 577] tropics encountered many of the well-known barriers to professional women, as well as the challenges of dealing with unfamiliar environments and cultures. These women also had to confront popular notions about the tropics as an inappropriate place for women. The New World tropics acquired an Arcadian and romantic aura as a place still savage, untamed by modern industrial society. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders established an image of machismo for those who would conquer these exotic lands. As the Neotropics became the focus for so much scientific attention, women scientists had to confront gender barriers and carve a niche there for themselves in order to advance their careers. When they found their routes blocked, some women scientists took a different path to Latin America, one that led to highly productive professional relationships with Latin American colleagues.

"I Should Be Somewhat Reluctant to Send a Woman"—
The Biological Survey of the Panama Canal Zone, 1911-1912

On February 23rd, 1904, the U.S. Senate ratified the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty paving the way for construction of the Panama Canal. Despite his optimism, President Theodore Roosevelt knew there were many obstacles to overcome. Not the least of these were the diseases—yellow fever and malaria—that had crippled the French efforts in Panama in the 1870s and 1880s. Roosevelt knew from his military service in the Spanish-American War that disease could be the most formidable of enemies; for every soldier killed in combat in Cuba, thirteen had died of diseases such as yellow fever, malaria, and typhoid. A corps of scientists was sent to Panama to combat disease, under the command of Colonel William C. Gorgas. 3

The naturalists who were sent to Panama also believed that this massive construction project would disturb the natural environment and complicate the problems of understanding the geographic distribution of plants and animals in the region. Thus, they wanted an inventory of the flora and fauna of the isthmus and the marine life on its Atlantic and Pacific coasts prior to completion of the canal. At the urging of colleagues, in 1909 officials from the Smithsonian Institution approached President Theodore Roosevelt for government support for a biological survey of the region. Roosevelt had been a naturalist since his youth and had close ties with Smithsonian naturalists. That same year, the Institution sponsored the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition, and Roosevelt's big game specimens from the expedition went on display when the new United States National Museum...