Celebrado cada otoño del 15 de septiembre al 15 de octubre desde 1988, El Mes de la Herencia Hispana es una ocasión para reconocer las numerosas contribuciones de la comunidad hispana en nuestro pais. Aquí el el Departamento de Zoología de Invertebrados, un gran número de maravillosos individuos hispanos (y latinos) han contribuido con su talento. Una de estas personas es Isabel Pérez Farfante (1916-2009). A pesar de las dificultades que Isabel enfrentó: el haber tenido que mudarse varias veces y haber sido de las primeras estudiantes mujeres hispánicas en su institución de educación superior, ella continuó desarrollando su amor por el aprendizaje y alimentando su curiosidad interminable. Ella tenía antecedentes diversos de trabajo en zoología de invertebrados, incluyendo los foraminíferos, los moluscos, los anfioxos y los camarones. Y su investigación dedicada la llevó a lograr descubrimientos importantes de poblaciones de camarones, hallazgos que ayudarían a la pesca comercial y a un entendimiento novedoso de la biología sistemática de los camarones.
Celebrated each fall from September 15 to October 15 since 1998, Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to recognize the numerous contributions of the Hispanic community to our country1.
Here at the Department of Invertebrate Zoology, many great Hispanic (and Latino) individuals have contributed their talents as well. One such person is Isabel Pérez Farfante (1916-2009). Despite the difficulties Isabel Pérez Farfante faced, having to relocate to different countries many times throughout her life and being among the first hispanic female students in her higher education institution, she always pursued her love of learning while feeding her unending curiosity. She had a diverse background of work in invertebrate zoology, involving foraminiferans, mollusks, lancelets, and shrimp. And Isabel’s dedicated research led to important discoveries of shrimp populations, findings that would help commercial fisheries, and a novel understanding of shrimp systematics.
You’ve probably never heard of Isabel; her name isn’t in American history textbooks--but she did make history. In the history of students at the American Ivy League institutions, she was the first Cuban woman to receive a doctoral degree2. Raised in Havana, Cuba, by Spanish immigrant parents, Isabel completed her high school studies and began her bachelor’s in Spain, before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Forced to leave Spain due to political differences, Isabel transferred to La Universidad de Habana. After graduating in 1938, she switched modes from student to teacher, becoming an Assistant Professor of Biology at the same institution.
But then Isabel’s thirst for knowledge took her (and her new family) on a journey to the United States. After receiving various prestigious fellowships, she was afforded the opportunity to attend Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts (at the time, Harvard was all-male, and Radcliffe was the women’s school within the institution). During her graduate studies, Isabel worked at the Museum of Comparative Zoology within Harvard. And upon completing her doctoral degree in 1948, she once again returned to Cuba, and to her alma mater, as a professor. Additionally, Isabel continued her research career by taking on a position at El Centro de Investigaciones Pesqueras, where she focused on shrimp.
In 1959, Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and a new co-director was put in place at El Centro de Investigaciones Pesqueras. This individual’s ideas and actions stirred the peace and clashed with Isabel’s own philosophy. Around this time, Isabel’s husband, Gerardo Canet Alvarez, had just declined to travel with Che Guevara for economic diplomacy purposes because he wasn’t interested in leaving his wife and two sons in Cuba without him. As a result, Isabel and Gerardo were “blacklisted” by the government, which significantly disrupted their professional pursuits. As a result, the family once more left Cuba, returning to Massachusetts. There, Isabel returned to the Museum of Comparative Zoology, working with invertebrates and especially shrimp.
It wasn’t until 1966 that Isabel moved her career to the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, she worked right here in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), under the National Marine Fisheries Service! Raymond T. Bauer, a professor at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, worked at NMNH as a postdoc, where he came to know Isabel well. She “worked very intensely but if someone knocked on the door, he or she was always warmly received,” says Raymond, reflecting on his colleague.
In 1986, Isabel transitioned to the field of carcinology, which is the study of crustaceans. Even after Isabel retired to Florida in 1997, she continued her involvement in this field, at Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
Isabel, like anyone learning to speak a foreign language, faced small obstacles when it came to English. But true to her diligent nature, she worked hard to correct them. Raymond also recalls that Isabel was a good friend of Fenner Chace, Jr.3, who was the “longtime crustacean (especially shrimps) specialist at NMNH” and who “helped [Isabel] by reading manuscripts and correcting all the small mistakes that [a] non-English speaker is likely to make.”
Speaking of Isabel’s perseverance, Raymond reflects that, “when a new publication of hers would come out, she would proudly take it to [Fenner’s] office to show him. Invariably, in [his] New England accent, [he would] say ‘Errors? Any mistakes?’ which always deflated her a bit.” Raymond finishes, “But she liked to tell the story.”
To Isabel Pérez Farfante, the process was as important as the final product. Of course, this observation seems unsurprising: after all, Isabel’s was a life spent in constant pursuit of new knowledge, while traveling the globe. But most important, we remember Isabel’s career and her determination, through which she helped pave the way for many more Hispanic and female scientists over the years.
1 National Hispanic Heritage Month. The Library of Congress.
2 Bauer, R. T. 2009. Isabel Pérez Farfante de Canet. Journal of Crustacean Biology 30(2) : 345-349.
3 Chace, Jr., F. A. A Brief History of the Invertebrate Zoology Department. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Pérez Farfante, I., Kensley, B. 1997. Penaeoid and Sergestoid Shrimps and Prawns of the World: Keys and Diagnoses for the Families and Genera. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of Natural History.