Celebrating 100 Years
The Birds of Panama:
Alexander Wetmore and Watson Perrygo in Panama, 1940s-1960s
For twenty years, between 1946 and 1966, Alexander Wetmore—ornithologist and the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian—made annual trips to Panama to conduct research and collect specimens for his monumental, multi-volume work, The Birds of the Republic of Panamá. On many of these trips he was accompanied by Watson Perrygo, a taxidermist and field collector at the U.S. National Museum, today the National Museum of Natural History.
The Smithsonian had long been involved in conducting biological research in Panama. The Institution spearheaded an important biological survey between 1910 and 1912, to gather data on the flora and fauna of the region prior to the disruption of the isthmus’ ecosystems with the completion of the Panama Canal. Smithsonian scientists had returned in the 1920s, to reassess the survey findings after the Canal had been operating for a decade. With the support of several North American universities and museums, the Smithsonian helped establish a nature preserve in 1923 on Barro Colorado Island (BCI). BCI formed when a dam on the Chagres River created the Gatun Lake (the island had formerly been a hilltop in the valley that was flooded). Within a year a laboratory had been established on the site. For many years it operated as a consortium of research institutions, coordinated by the National Research Council, and including for example Harvard University, New York Academy of Sciences, the University of Michigan and others, with each organization contributing funds for research space. In 1946, the year that Wetmore began making annual trips there, the Biological Station at Barro Colorado Island became an official bureau of the Smithsonian. The station was renamed the Canal Zone Biological Area and today is called the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
Secretary Wetmore was an ornithologist deeply interested in Latin American biology. An active participant in the Smithsonian’s work at BCI, he always stopped first at the Biological Station on his annual collecting trips to Panama, to monitor the progress there.
Wetmore and Perrygo were a charming pair. Museum staffers sometimes called them Mutt and Jeff, after a cartoon strip popular in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, on account of their great disparity in height: Wetmore was a lanky 6 feet 4 inches, while Perrygo was a foot shorter.
Wetmore—or “Alejandro Grande,” as the villagers called him—loved to stay in small villages, spending time with the locals. In 1953 they visited Soná, in the province of Veraguas, and observed the traditional festival in honor of Santa María Auxiliadora.
Over the years, Wetmore developed close relationships with the people of Panama. Two young men, Armagedón and Ratibor Hartmann, served as his guides for many years. Wetmore documented his trips extensively, keeping well-annotated scrapbooks.
Wetmore focused on Panama because of its critical role as a narrow flyway for birds migrating between North and South America. Wetmore’s volumes are the definitive work on the birds of this important region, which today remains a leading center for Neotropical scientific research. Even today Smithsonian scientists continue to collaborate with researchers from around the world at STRI, and continue Wetmore’s work.
- Read the latest news from STRI in Panama.
- Learn more about the Smithsonian’s work in Panama from the online exhibit, Expeditions: 150 Years of the Smithsonian in Latin America.
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