Making a Difference: A Tale of Two Centuries

by | Mar 17, 2014

Harvard’s ties to Latin America go much farther back in time than 1994, the year that Neil Rudenstine and David Rockefeller launched the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and John H. Coatsworth became its founding director. Indeed, for two centuries, Harvard has enjoyed multiple ties with the region in the sciences, the arts and humanities and the social sciences. This historical relationship with people, institutions, and countries in Latin America has been extraordinarily important in the development of this university and for the lives of its faculty and students.

Initial encounters between Harvard and Latin America were established through Europe and the humanities. Beginning in 1816, students were able to choose to learn Spanish as part of the curriculum. Their teacher, Francis Sales (originally François Sala), a French emigré and modern language pioneer who taught until 1853, was revered by them; during his long life, he developed a curriculum for teaching Spanish and translated some of the jewels of Spanish literature for his students. After 1819, Harvard students also had the opportunity to study with Boston Brahmin George Ticknor, who became the first Smith Professor of the French and Spanish Languages and Literatures, and whose lifework was a magisterial three-volume History of Spanish Literature. Then, in 1836 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow assumed the Smith professorship, passing along his deep knowledge of Spain and its culture and language to his students. Continuing with this history of eminent incumbents, poet James Russell Lowell occupied the Smith chair from 1855 to 1891.

Harvard students, and the small cadre of professors who made up the teaching faculty in the mid-19th century, would also have been very familiar with William Prescott’s detailed History of the Conquest of Mexico and his equally monumental History of the Conquest of Peru, published in 1843 and 1847. Running to several volumes apiece, each of these histories followed the path of the Spanish conquistadores with vivid accounts of how they overcame the much larger forces of advanced civilizations. Prescott was a meticulous descriptor of peoples and places he had never visited. Indeed, it is still difficult to read these volumes without a sense that Boston’s first Latin Americanist had somehow been transported in time and place to the region in the 16th century.

The Harvard community of the mid-19th century would also have known the Peabody sisters. Mary Peabody Mann, married to the educator Horace Mann, and Sophia Peabody, who later married Nathaniel Hawthorne, were among the Boston Brahmins whose writings on Cuba and its practice of slavery were important in shaping the views of the New England abolitionists. When Argentine writer and statesman Domingo Sarmiento visited Boston in 1847, and later in 1865, he met Ticknor, Longfellow and other Harvard luminaries. During those visits, he also met Mary Mann, who became his champion in the United States and translated his famous book, Facundo: O civilización y barbarie, into English.

Relations between Latin America and Harvard continued to develop through such personal encounters. When Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II visited in 1876, he was wined and dined in Cambridge by Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Agassiz and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Indeed, in the close-knit social and intellectual life of Cambridge and Boston in the mid and late 19th century, there were many opportunities across dinner tables, literary salons, public lectures, and exhibits for discussing what intellectuals and scholars knew of Spain and Latin America at the time.

Jeffries Wyman was the first Harvard professor to journey to Latin America to undertake research. In 1858-1859, Wyman, a natural historian, traveled to Argentina, up the Rio de la Plata and then the Paraná River before heading to Chile and Peru, collecting archeological artifacts for the university’s Lawrence Scientific School. Then, in 1865 and 1866, the most famous U.S. scientist of the time, Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz, set out to study fish and geological formations in the Brazilian Amazon. Larger than life, Agassiz was charming, outgoing, eloquent, charismatic, egocentric and stubborn, as well as a compulsive collector. Although on the losing end of an argument about evolution, and with increasingly unpopular views on the evils of miscegenation among the races, Agassiz was a colorful leader of science in the United States, known especially for his emphasis on the importance of the direct observation of nature.

Agassiz’s obsession with collecting would fill Harvard’s new Museum of Comparative Zoology (known popularly as “Agassiz’s Museum”) with hundreds of barrels, boxes, jars, and presses containing an enormous variety of animals, plants, and geological specimens. A daunting eighty thousand specimens in alcohol-packed containers were delivered to the Museum from the 16-month trip to Brazil. In addition to the material bonanza, his expedition would capture contemporary imaginations as an exciting tropical adventure to the “other America.” Similarly, several years after the Amazon work, Agassiz’s leadership of the Hassler Expedition around South America, in the wake of Darwin’s Beagle, would generate extensive descriptions of lands and peoples still considered exotic by many in the United States.

As a 19th-century foray of U.S. scientists to Latin America, Agassiz’s Thayer Expedition is important for many reasons, not least in terms of the Darwinian debate it engaged or the specimens that it delivered to the museum in Cambridge. The journey is also remembered as an episode in the life of young William James, who would go on to shape the discipline of psychology and to play a leading role in the life of Harvard, where he spent his long professional career. In 1865, he was a 23-year-old medical student still searching for a focus for life. He, along with four other students, joined the expedition as volunteers, ambitious to expand their educations and, no doubt, to have a great adventure. His letters back home to his family are full of self-deprecating humor, descriptions and sketches of the exotic tropical landscape, and observations of those he met along the way. After a bout with smallpox in Rio de Janeiro, he vowed to leave the expedition; luckily, however, he changed his mind and continued on to explore “a most extraordinary and lovely country,” in canoes and on steamers through the byways of the Amazon. After eight months of collecting innumerable fish and even more insect bites, James returned to Harvard and finished his studies in medicine. In 1873, he returned to teach at Harvard after a sojourn in Europe, eager to develop the emergent field of psychology as a science.

The Thayer Expedition also included Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz. After the voyage, Elizabeth used her notes and letters as the lead author of the popular story of the expedition, A Journey in Brazil, in which she described the lush landscape and the species of flora that abounded in the tropics. Ever present when meeting local dignitaries and the people of the villages they visited, she described societies and customs not familiar to readers back home. In later years, she accompanied Agassiz on the Hassler Expedition and likewise wrote of the adventure in ways that reached the popular imagination. Nevertheless, like James’s, her Latin American life is often overshadowed by her later accomplishments, when she went on to play a leading role in encouraging the higher education of women in Cambridge, to become the first president of Radcliffe College and to shape its evolution through its first several decades.

The Thayer Expedition lives on as a chapter in the life of a famous, if flawed, scientist, his young student and his expressive wife. But the journey was also emblematic of a heightened interest among U.S. academics in assigning scholarly importance to the world beyond the United States and Europe. From the 1860s to the 1930s, U.S. universities burgeoned into repositories of studies, specimens, artifacts and investigations of global knowledge. They became more worldly. In this regard, the Brazilian expedition was a significant event in the life of Harvard, for it represented part of a lengthy transformation of a small, parochial school for the sons of the New England elite into an important research university with claims to broader and deeper scholarship. As would become clear in the decades following the Amazon trip, Harvard researchers, like those from other universities, sought to acquire knowledge in new and more direct ways. Their travels tested them and their contemporaries to observe more closely and to become more tolerant of “the other.”

Thus, the Thayer Expedition was followed in 1889 by an initiative of the Harvard College Observatory to establish an outpost in Peru for mapping the southern skies. Solon I. Bailey, his wife, his 4-year-old son, and his brother lived like pioneers in a tar-paper house on a mountain outside of Lima for a year before establishing a more permanent home near Arequipa, where they lived for several years. Bailey traveled extensively into the interior of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, witnessed a revolution from behind doors barred against marauders, and became a well-liked part of Arequipa’s scientific community. Harvard’s Boyden Observatory, which remained in operation until 1927, was responsible for sending more than 200,000 photographic images of the stars to Cambridge.

There were others among these generations of roving scientists from Harvard. Roland Thaxter, a professor of plant pathology, entomology and mycology, and the son of New England poet Celia Thaxter, spent nine months in Chile and Argentina in 1905-1906 in search of small parasitic fungi that attach to insects, and his research added significantly to the collections of the Harvard Herbarium. Thomas Barbour was a larger-than-life professor of herpetology who, beginning in 1908, made more than 30 trips to Cuba, Panama and Costa Rica in search of reptiles and amphibians. His journeys in the Caribbean and Central America were occasions for a “moveable feast” of local relationships and institution-building in the name of science. He was also, for many years, the custodian of the Harvard Botanical Gardens in Cuba.

Social scientists were early travelers also. A growing cadre of anthropologists and archeologists from Harvard were fascinated by the cultures and ancient civilizations of meso-American and the Andean region. In 1901, Alfred Tozzer, a pioneer in the development of the discipline of anthropology and archeology, set out for Mexico to explore Maya civilization, returning often to Harvard with artifacts for the Peabody Museum in his suitcases, a practice that is certainly not accepted by today’s archeologists. Selden O. Martin of the Harvard Business School used his summer vacation in 1908 to travel to Brazil to understand how firms interacted with markets in different contexts and of the potential for commercial expansion in Latin America. Paul Cherington, also from the Business School, spent the summer of 1910 studying marketing and public opinion in Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala. Then, in 1923, Clarence H. Haring became Harvard’s first professor of Latin American history. With this acknowledgment of the importance of the region, the university has never since moved away from this commitment to the region. Indeed, the number of faculty focused on learning from Latin America was poised to grow to more than a 100 by the beginning of the 21st century.

By the mid-20th century, it had become expected that scholars seeking to understand the richness and diversity of Latin America through the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences would travel frequently to the region. More recently, Harvard has generated similar expectations for its students. The year after DRCLAS was established, we know of 31 students who traveled to Latin America to undertake research and other activities. By the 2010s, more than 400 were traveling to the region each year. Without fail, they return to Harvard energized to learn more about Latin America, to work harder on their Spanish and Portuguese language skills, and to return to the region in the future. Most admit that their sojourns abroad have significantly altered their perspectives on the world and many indicate that their experiences have changed their career plans. They are not alone in bringing Latin America to Harvard, as each year more than 400 students come from the region to study and to enrich the university’s culture.

Harvard’s professors and students have built a great legacy of scholarly travel to and from Latin America. What is evident in even a passing knowledge of their interactions with the region is how long-lived, rich, and varied are the ways in which travel, research, collaborations, and Latin American students have made a difference to the university—in its knowledge base, its museums and collections, and its culture. While we hope that Harvard’s past interactions and current vibrant relationships with Latin America are also making important contributions to colleagues, universities, institutions, governments and research there, it is clear that we owe a deep scholarly debt to the pioneers who brought the region to the university. They have definitely made a difference to Harvard.

Spring 2014Volume XIII, Number 3

Merilee Grindle is the director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) and Edward S. Mason Professor of International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her most recent book is Jobs for the Boys: Patronage and the State in Comparative Perspective (Harvard University Press, 2012).

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