Harvard University began its involvement with topical botany in Cuba in 1899 when Edwin Atkins (1850–1926), owner of the Soledad Plantation in Cuba, met with Harvard Professors Oakes Ames and George Goodale and established The Harvard Botanic Station for Tropical Research and Sugar Cane Investigation. In 1920, the ties between the garden and Harvard became more formal with a large endowment provided by Atkins and the recognition of the garden as part of the University. In 1924, the Harvard Biological Laboratory was constructed at the garden. In 1932, administration of the garden was transferred to the Arnold Arboretum and it was officially named the Atkins Institution of the Arnold Arboretum. In 1946, administration of the garden by the Arnold Arboretum was ended and a resident director was appointed to oversee the facility. At that time is was renamed the Atkins Garden and Research Laboratory. As a tropical agricultural research facility it developed more productive varieties of grains and fruits while becoming a popular tourist attraction. With the Cuban revolution in 1959, conditions became difficult for travel and for maintenance of the Atkins Garden, and in 1962 the US embargo restricted American involvement. The director, Dr. Duncan Clement, left Cuba in 1961 and Harvard terminated its support. Since that time, the Atkins Garden has been maintained by the Cuban government as the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden.
Research into the history of the garden is being actively conducted by historian of science Leida Fernandez-Prieto, who is the Wilbur Marvin Visiting Scholar of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Affairs. She is featured in an article in the Harvard Gazette.
The Arnold Arboretum Archives holds a rich collection of materials relating to the Atkins Institution. There are a number of photographs, both historical and modern, documenting activities at the garden, the landscape, and researchers going about their work. Print materials include a report covering the years 1900-1926 written by Robert M. Grey, Garden Superintendent from 1903-1936 describing the establishment of The Harvard Botanic Station as well as plant lists by superintendents of the Garden covering the years 1933-37 and 1944. A 1953 plant list was authored by Arboretum Director Richard A. Howard. Plant identifications and photographs by Arboretum taxonomist Alfred Rehder are also included. The correspondence of Harvard Professor Thomas Barbour, Director, Museum of Comparative Zoology (named “custodian” of the Atkins Institution’s botanical garden at Soledád, Cuba in 1927), Arboretum Directors Charles S. Sargent, Oakes Ames, Elmer D. Merrill, Richard A. Howard, and Atkins garden superintendents Richard M. Grey, David Sturrock and his assistant F.G. Walsingham, reflect the development of one of the most complete and richest tropical research gardens of the world.
—Lisa Pearson, Head of Library and Archives, with significant contributions from Sheila Connor and Liz Francis