Wilson Popenoe was born in Topeka, Kansas, United States, on March 9, 1892. He was a botanist, agronomist, and teacher who developed much of his scientific activities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Dr. Wilson Popenoe was born in Topeka, Kansas, United States, on March 9, 1892. He started exploring the Central American flora in 1913 as a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official. He was a botanist, agronomist, and teacher who developed much of his scientific activities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
After 30 years of experience as an agricultural explorer in the American tropics, Dr. Popenoe was well known in the region. He studied areas in natural science regarding botany and the pharmaceutical, agricultural, ornamental, and forest industries. He also conducted research projects on pomology in the Americas, Asia, and Europe.
In 1925, he started working for the United Fruit Company and founded the Lancetilla Experimental Station to study endemic diseases affecting the company’s banana plantations. Today, this banana plantation is a protected area that promotes environmental protection projects.
Years after the opening of Lancetilla, Samuel Zemurray was pondering the idea of an agricultural school in the Zamorano farm. He and his daughter, Doris, decided that Popenoe fit perfectly with the hands-on model they visualized and was perfect for directing the institution. Consequently, Wilson Popenoe became the first director of the newly-born Panamerican Agricultural School and held that post until 1957.
Wilson had five children with his first wife, Dorothy K. Hughes: Peter, Nancy, Sally, Marion, and Hugh, who became president of the Board of Trustees and Trustee Emeritus of Zamorano.
During his lifetime, Popenoe received three honorary degrees from different institutions: The Universidad Mayor de San Marcos (Lima, Perú); the Pomona College, now California Polytechnic University (Pomona, USA); and the University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida). He received 22 awards, including the Rank of Commander from the Order of Francisco Morazán of the Honduran government, which was also granted to Doris Zemurray Stone. What’s more, he published seventy-two manuals, books, and newsletters, which include, “El Aguacate: su cultivo y distribución, Fruticultura Centroamericana, and Manual de frutas tropicales y subtropicales”.
“Wilson Popenoe was always a teacher who focused on constant, arduous, excellent, and disciplined work.” said Dr. Abraham Arce, from the first generation of Zamorano graduates (Class of ’46).
Dr. Popenoe died at 83 in the city of Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala, where his remains rest today. His life was deeply linked to Zamorano. His inventive, energetic, and entrepreneurial spirit made him transcend borders to create philosophies such as Learning by Doing, which lives on as a pillar in the training of young Zamorano leaders.
The Beginning of Learning by Doing and Labor Omnia Vincit
Zamorano emerged from noble and ingenious initiatives between Zemurray, Popenoe, and Stone, who, with a creative and humanitarian vision, idealized and determined the essential requirements in which the Panamerican Agricultural School would be based.
In early 1943, a group of 72 students arrived at Zamorano. These would be the first students with whom Popenoe would put into practice and validate his teaching methods. They entered a theoretical and practical study program lasting a maximum of three years. The syllabus combined academic studies with intensive work in the field.
Although this teaching model summed up what the Latin proverb “Labor Omnia Vincit” (work conquers all) meant, Popenoe had a broader idea for the education imparted in Zamorano. Discipline was essential to him as an important part of all activities —in or off-campus— as well as punctuality and respect. He considered that these aspects needed to be a permanent part of the Zamorano education.
Like Zemurray, Popenoe believed in an education based on values and the formation of character. He was excited about helping young men from humble origins develop into successful leaders with strong work ethics and values such as integrity, morals, self-confidence, and stamina.
Writer Frederick Rosengarten Jr., the author of Wilson Popenoe’s biography, defines Popenoe as “a great agricultural explorer, but above all, a friend of Latin America.”
Each 9th of March, graduates, students, and employees celebrate Dr. Wilson Popenoe’s legacy as a visionary and tireless educator in search of excellence through hard work and discipline.
Some of the information in this brief historical review is from the book “Zamorano: Meeting the Challenge of Tropical America”, written by Dr. Simon Malo, an Ecuadorian Zamorano graduate of the Class of ’54. Malo was Popenoe’s student and the seventh director of our beloved alma mater.
Book of reference: “Wilson Popenoe” by Frederick Rosengarten Jr..