American Empire and the scientific survey of Puerto Rico

Darryl Erwin Brock, Fordham University


As the first decade of the new century ended, the legacy of the Spanish-Cuban-American War era had driven an American need to advance a New World imperial project. The New York Academy of Sciences, in close concert with the city's American Museum of Natural History, and also The New York Botanical Garden, adopted a plan in 1912 later entitled the "Scientific Survey of Porto Rico and the Virgin Islands." The sponsors envisioned an ambitious twentieth-century metropolitan variant of colonial science to conquer the new scientific frontier of Puerto Rico. Swarms of expeditionary scientists would catalog the plants, animals, geology and archeology of Puerto Rico, tangibly demonstrating America's far-flung imperium to a curious metropolitan populace. The New York Botanical Garden would compile the floras of empire, much as the Kew Gardens global network had done for the British Empire. The Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico would comprise eighteen scientific expeditions originating from the Garden during the years leading to 1933. The Academy published results until 1960, eventually compiling nineteen multi-disciplinary research volumes. Despite the Survey initially justifying itself according to the "civilizing mission," over the decades its leadership allied with future governor Luis Muñoz Marín's Liberal Party, working toward a progressive vision for Puerto Rico. New York Botanical Garden founder Nathaniel L. Britton--succeeded in the 1930s by Smith College geology professor Howard A. Meyerhoff--adroitly established close linkages with local elite power in Puerto Rico, with both leaders dedicated to insular development. The young, brilliant Cornell-trained Puerto Rican colonial scientist, Carlos Chardón, emerged as Britton's protégé, later assuming chancellorship of the University of Puerto Rico. Association with the well-respected Survey helped place Chardón in a position, in 1935, to be tapped by FDR to head a New Deal agency, the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration. Sugar corporations, FDR's New Deal, and the Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico all represented modernizing and professionalizing influences on Puerto Rico. Collectively, they led to an emerging professional class that by the late 1940s would assume the reigns of local power from mainland authorities, directing Puerto Rico's future throughout the rest of the century, to the present.

Subject Area

Latin American history|Science history

Recommended Citation

Brock, Darryl Erwin, "American Empire and the scientific survey of Puerto Rico" (2014). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3632713.