Object of the Month

Atkins Family Photographs

Robert M. Grey, Mr. Brooks, and Thomas Barbour gathering papayas at the Harvard Botanical Garden, Soledad, Cuba Photograph

Robert M. Grey, Mr. Brooks, and Thomas Barbour gathering papayas at the Harvard Botanical Garden, Soledad, Cuba

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On 31 March 1924, botanist and plant explorer Dr. David Fairchild snapped this photograph of fellow botanists Robert M. Grey and Thomas Barbour picking papayas with a worker at the Harvard Botanical Station gardens. The Station, located on the E. Atkins & Co. sugar plantation in Cienfuegos, Cuba, boasted a unique collection of tropical flora, with thousands of species of plants that Fairchild photographed and researched during his visit. The resulting photographs are mostly rich, detailed studies of the garden's plant life, but occasionally, Fairchild also captured the daily activities of life on the plantation. In this rare, candid moment, he caught his colleagues hamming it up for the camera as they picked fruit for the plantation's April Fool's Day festival.

More about the Harvard Botanical Station and the Atkins plantation in Cuba

In the late 19th century, the Boston-based sugar merchant Edwin F. Atkins was a dominant force in the U.S.-Cuban sugar market. His firm, E. Atkins & Co., produced four thousand tons of sugar annually from its plantations in Cienfuegos, Cuba during the mid-1880s. Even so, E. Atkins & Co., like many sugarcane planters, was continually plagued by diseased and degenerative crops. In 1899, Harvard professors Atkins's Limones plantation. Grey also built an impressive garden on the grounds, filled with tropical plants and fruit trees from around the world. In 1924, the Harvard Biological Laboratory was added to the Station to further research in tropical botany, under the direction of Dr. Thomas Barbour. After the Cuban revolution of 1959, Harvard relinquished control of the lands and facilities. Today, the garden is known as Cienfuegos Botanical Garden and is maintained by the government of Cuba.

David Fairchild's photographs of the Harvard Botanical Station are part of the Atkins family photographs at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Society also has the Atkins family papers, an extensive collection that details the activities of the Atkins family and the E. Atkins & Co. sugar interest in Cuba from 1854 to 1950. For more information about these collections, please search ABIGAIL, the MHS online catalog.

George L. Goodale and Oakes Ames visited Atkins at his Soledad plantation in Cuba. They urged him to collaborate with Harvard University to fund research into tropical biology, particularly in the hybridization of sugarcane, to improve and develop new varieties of the crop. To this end, in 1901 Atkins employed noted horticulturist Robert M. Grey to begin work on what soon became the Harvard Botanical Station for Tropical Research and Sugar Cane Investigation on Atkins's Limones plantation. Grey also built an impressive garden on the grounds, filled with tropical plants and fruit trees from around the world. In 1924, the Harvard Biological Laboratory was added to the Station to further research in tropical botany, under the direction of Dr. Thomas Barbour. After the Cuban revolution of 1959, Harvard relinquished control of the lands and facilities. Today, the garden is known as Cienfuegos Botanical Garden and is maintained by the government of Cuba.





Sources for Further Research

"Atkins Family Photographs, ca. 1884-ca. 1958: Guide to the Photograph Collection." Massachusetts Historical Society.

"Atkins Institution of the Arnold Arboretum. Records of the Atkins Institution of the Arnold Arboretum, 1899-1954 (inclusive): A Finding Aid." Arnold Arboretum Library and Archives, Harvard University.

Edwin F. Atkins. Sixty Years in Cuba: Reminiscences of Edwin F. Atkins. Cambridge [Mass.]: Privately printed at the Riverside Press, 1926.


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