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In Latin American natural history, the achievements of outsiders often eclipse homegrown science and study. Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt, with his late-18th to early-19th century South American expeditions, was followed by a string of expeditions from Europe and later the United States, but Latin American naturalists have had a major, if overlooked, impact on the understanding of biodiversity in their own countries. Latino Natural History, a digital exhibition launched this month, spotlights their contributions.
“There’s plenty of information on Latin American natural history, but a lot of the readily available accounts are from the point of view of outside explorers,” Adriana Marroquin, Biodiversity Heritage Library digital exhibits coordinator and creator of the exhibition, told Hyperallergic. “Along the same line, there are many Latino and Latina scientists who have contributed greatly to the study of natural history, but for a variety of reasons (political turmoil, lack of financial support, selective history, etc.) their work has been overshadowed by those outside point of views.”
The online resource was supported — along with an Early Women in Science exhibition — through a grant from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee to the Smithsonian Libraries. Using the exhibition platform of the Biodiversity Library, which is a consortium of open access collections from natural history and botanical libraries, Latino Natural History is a compact portal into the work of naturalists both obscure and familiar. There are the celebrated bird paintings of Puerto Rican-American Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927), as well as more recent work that’s still gaining attention, like that of the Argentinian agrostologist Cleofe Calderon, who passed away in 2007 and whose studies of bamboo had a major impact on the understanding of the evolution of grass. Each person gets a page in the exhibition, from Carlos de la Torre y Huerta of Cuba, with his early-20th century mollusk studies, to Eduardo Caballero y Caballero of Mexico, a leader in mid-20th century helminthology, the study of parasitic worms. Images on their respective pages lead to archives of their digitized, high-resolution works.
“It’s easy to leave out this part of the story, and it really shouldn’t be, especially since all the naturalists featured in the exhibition were part of the larger scientific communities of Latin America, Europe, and the United States,” Marroquin added. “This exhibit is by no means comprehensive, but we hope to bring to light the important contributions of Latinos and Latinas to the study of the natural sciences.”
h/t Slate Vault
The exhibition Latino Natural History is accessible online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.