Babalú Exclusive: Cuban footprints across America — The first Ivy League Cuban Woman

The following Babalú exclusive is an excerpt from author Fernando “Fernan” Hernandez’s book, “The Cubans, Our Footprints Across America,” which documents the incredible stories of Cuban refugees who came to America, the land of opportunity, and achieved incredible success through hard work and determination.

More excerpts will appear in the coming weeks…
____________________________ Perez Farfante (1916- 2009) was a Cuban-born carcinologist, or someone who studies crustaceans. She was the first Cuban woman to receive a Ph.D. from an Ivy League school. She returned to Cuba from the United States only to be blacklisted by the Castro government. Perez Farfante and her family escaped Cuba and she became one of the world’s foremost zoologist studying prawns. She discovered large populations of shrimp off the coast of Cuba and published along with Brian Kensley one of the most noted books on shrimps: ‘Penaeoid and Sergestoid Shrimps and Prawns of the World. Keys and Diagnoses for the Families and Genera”.

So how did this brilliant scientist get started? She completed her Bachelor of Science in 1938 from the University of Havana . After graduation she worked as an associate professor at the university. She married economist and geographer Gerardo Canet Alvarez in 1941 and then she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942 for biology and ecology. This award, along with an Alexander Agassiz Fellowship in oceanography and zoology, and a Fellowship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, helped support her education at Radcliffe College . She then received her Master’s in Biology in 1944. This feat made her one of the first women to attend Harvard University . She then went on to get her Ph.D. from Radcliffe.

During this time she met Thomas Barbour in Washington , D.C. Perez Farfante was struggling to garner support for her projects in her department, and Barbour advised she work at Harvard. Barbour helped her get work there, and from 1946 until 1948 she was Associate Curator of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. In 1948 she earned her Ph.D from Radcliffe, making her the first Cuban woman to obtain a Doctorate from an Ivy League institution. After graduation, she returned to Cuba and continued her career.

Upon her return, Perez Farfante served as full professor at the University of Havana until 1960. She also served as a shrimp researcher and then the director of the Cuban Fisheries Research Center until 1960, while still working as a professor. During this time, she and her husband Gerardo Canet welcomed the new government in the island. But she began having conflicts with the newly appointed co-director of the Research Center . Also during this time, it was requested that her husband accompany Che Guevara on trips abroad. Canet declined, wanting to be close to his wife and two sons. This led to the couple’s inclusion on the Cuban government’s blacklist. They sent their sons to the U.S. and a month later the two fled Cuba , leaving behind all their personal items, except for one suitcase.

Perez Farfante, with her family, returned to Cambridge , Massachusetts , and she found work back at the Museum of Comparative Zoology . There she served as associate in invertebrate zoology from 1961 until 1969. For a number of years she did independent research, receiving funding from Radcliffe College and the National Science Foundation. She began working as systematic zoologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service Lab at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington , D.C.

She researched the systematics of Penaeid shrimp. However, in her early work, in the late 1930s and 1940s, she studied Foraminiferans and mollusks. In the 1940s, while working at the Museum of Comparative Zoology , Dr. Perez Farfante worked with Henry Bryant Bigelow on his research about lancelets. By 1950 she had started focusing on commercial shrimp. She discovered large shrimp populations in the Gulf of Batabano and Isla de la Juventud, both in Cuba.

After escaping to the U.S. , she focused on the Penaeid shrimp, specifically on reproductive morphology. She researched shrimp from shrimp farms in America on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1961 to 1962. In her later years, while assisting at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmosheric Science in Miami , she co-wrote a paper about Sergestoidea and Penaeidae shrimp in the Tongue of the Ocean.

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