James Zetek portrait

James Zetek

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute traces its 90-year history in Panama to the construction of the Panama Canal, when scientific interest in surveying the flora and fauna of the area grew for the purpose of controlling insect diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. After the canal began operating, entomologists and biologists involved in these studies sought to establish a permanent biological reserve on an island created during the construction of the Canal.

The history of STRI begins with the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s. Smithsonian scientists were asked to conduct a biological inventory of the new Canal Zone in 1910, and this survey was subsequently extended to include all of Panama. Thanks largely to their efforts, the Governor of the Canal Zone declared Barro Colorado Island (BCI) a biological reserve in 1923, making it one of the earliest biological reserves in the Americas. During the 1920s and 1930s BCI, in Lake Gatun, became an outdoor laboratory for scientists from US universities and the Smithsonian Institution. By 1940, more than 300 scientific publications described the biota of BCI, and in the "Government Reorganization Act of 1946", BCI became a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1923, Barro Colorado Island (BCI) became one of the first biological reserves in the New World, and is now the most intensively studied area in the tropics. Home to a recorded 1,316 plant species, 381 bird species, and 102 mammal species, this 1,500 hectare island contains a network of 59 kilometers of marked and protected trails. The Smithsonian Institution was one of several organizations initially participating in the research and administration of BCI.

Dedicated to conducting long studies in tropical biology, Barro Colorado Island became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1946. In 1966, the organization changed its name to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and expanded its scope by extending its research to other areas in the tropics. It also established a marine science program with laboratories on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Panama.

STRI as we know it today dates from the 1960s, when the first permanent staff scientists were hired and fellowship programs to support aspiring tropical biologists were initiated. A strong relationship with the Republic of Panama, STRI's host nation, was formalized in the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977. This relationship was renewed and extended in 1985 when Panama granted STRI the status of International Mission, and again in 1997 when the country offered custodianship of STRI facilities beyond the termination of the Panama Canal Treaties. STRI's relationship with the Republic of Panama continues to be of central importance.

Barro Colorado Island, 1920

Barro Colorado Island, 1920

After the Panama Canal Treaties ended in the year 2000, STRI signed agreements with the Interoceanic Canal Authority (ARI) to assure continued use of its current structures, areas and facilities for the next 20 years. In June l997, STRI also signed an agreement with the Government of Panama through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whereby the Institute is authorized to continue its research activities, and maintains the custodianship and management of the Barro Colorado Nature Monument, extending its International Mission status for 20 years. There are provisions to renew these agreements, making STRI's long-term research plans possible.

Today, long-term studies and explorations of natural history are being conducted throughout the Isthmus, at land and marine field stations equipped with modern laboratories and dormitory facilities. The first director of the BCI research station in Panama was James Zetek (1923-1956). In 1957, Martin H. Moynihan, founding director of STRI, began employing the first permanent resident scientists and expanded the institute’s research to other tropical countries. Under the direction of Ira Rubinoff since 1973, STRI has continued to expand its work in the tropics, and now conducts research throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa.