The Department of Botany and the United States National Herbarium are proud to award annually the José Cuatrecasas Medal for Excellence in Tropical Botany. Our objectives are two-fold; 1) we wish to keep vibrant the accomplishments and memory of our late colleague José Cuatrecasas (1903-1996) who spent almost fifty years working in our Department and who had a distinguished career devoted to systematic botany and exploration in tropical South America, especially in Colombia, and 2) we wish to use this award as a vehicle to honor a colleague who is a botanist and scholar of international stature and who has contributed significantly to advancing the field of tropical botany.
This year we are very pleased to present the seventh José Cuatrecasas Medal for Excellence in Tropical Botany to Mireya Correa of the University of Panama and STRI. In making this selection, the award committee took note of her many accomplishments as an educator, administrator, and plant taxonomist. Mireya received her Licencia in Biology and Chemistry from the University of Panama in 1963. In the same year she was appointed Professor of Biology and Chemistry at her alma mater. While a student she also worked as a laboratory technician at the Gorgas Memorial Laboratory in Panama. In fact, her first scientific paper was on trypanosomes and other microorganisms from Panamanian sand flies. Fortunately for us, she did not continue in this direction but saw the light and became interested in vascular plants. Taking leave from the University, she enrolled at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and she received her Master's degree in Botany in 1967 working under Robert L. Wilbur.
Almost immediately after returning to her teaching position at the University of Panama, Mireya founded the herbarium of the University of Panama. Starting in 1968 with no specimens, the collection now has almost 70,000 specimens of which some 12,000 were collected by Mireya. It is the principal herbarium in the Republic of Panama and one of the more important herbaria in Central America. Mireya has been the director of this herbarium since its inception. Currently, the herbarium is playing an important role in coordinating the LAPI (Latin American Plant Initiative) project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which seeks to image Latin American type specimens. Not content to curate one herbarium, Mireya also curates the smaller herbarium of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute that has some 12,000 specimens.
Wearing these two hats, professor and director of the herbarium, Mireya has had a profound impact on education of biology students in Panama. She currently has some 40 students that she is advising on projects that range from taxonomy to floristics to ethnobotany. Many of her previous students have gone on to hold positions of importance and influence not only in Panama but also abroad. Mireya also has contributed to the botanical community nationally, regionally and internationally through service to numerous botanical and environmental organizations, not the least of which is the Organization for the Flora Neotropica and of which José Cuatrecasas was a founding member.
The medal committee also took note of Mireya's many contributions to the scientific literature. Among her approximately 100 publications are several books or book-length monographs, notably The botany and natural history of Panama (1985) (with William G. D'Arcy), Catálago de las plantas vasculares de Panamá (2004) (with Carmen Galdames & María Stapf), and a monograph of Drosera (Droseraceae) for Flora Neotropica (2005) (with Tânia Regina dos Santos Silva). Forgiving Mireya for her excursion into the biology of trypanosomes, one also sees an ongoing collaboration with colleagues at the Center for Pharmacognostic Research on Panamanian Flora (CIFLORPAN) in the College of Pharmacy of the University, which has yielded many co-authored papers on plant natural products.
I had earlier alluded to Mireya's field work. One noteworthy ongoing project was initiated in 1991. It is a detailed study of the plants of a one-hectare plot in the Campana National Park. Some 4000 individual plants were tagged and have been censused at least twice. For close to ten years, detailed notes have been made of the phenology of these plants as well. A guide or florula has been prepared of some 1500 species found in "La Campana" and this has been important in supporting the development of ecotourism in the park.
Before I conclude, I want to return briefly to one of Mireya's more remarkable and lasting accomplishments. I stated that in 1968 she founded the herbarium at the university. Certainly there was a great deal of plant collecting in Panama that preceded this and without a place to deposit these earlier specimens (or duplicates) in Panama we find that they are scattered throughout collections in North America and Europe. After a brief bit of sleuthing I was able to determine that Mireya founded a herbarium in Panama 268 years after the first herbarium specimen was made in what is now the Republic of Panama. James Wallace (fl. 1684–1724), who founded the short-lived Scottish colony of New Caledonia in the Darien (abandoned 12 April 1700), communicated specimens gathered by the surgeon Archbald Stewart (fl. 1699–1700) to James Petiver, whose Hortus Siccus was acquired by the British botanist Sir Hans Sloane and now rests in the Natural History Museum (London). The specimens are mostly ferns and detached leaves. Wallace may have given the earliest account of Darien vegetation when he wrote "This place affords legions of monstrous Plants, enough to confound all the methods of Botany ever hitherto thought upon." Thankfully, Mireya has helped tame these "monstrous Plants" and we wish her many years more of contributing to our knowledge of the flora of Panama.
L.J. Dorr, 26 April 2008
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