Beal Steere Photo

Joseph Beal Steere (center) with his team of University of Michigan students, 1887 (from his papers, Bentley Historical Library).

Dean Conant Worcester — Biography

Dean Conant Worcester was born in Thetford, Vermont, in 1866, the youngest son in a family of nine children. In 1884, he enrolled at the University of Michigan where he majored in biology. In 1887, Joseph Beal Steere, chair of the Department of Zoology, invited him to join his expedition to the Philippines to document and collect zoological specimens for the University Museum. To raise money for the trip, Worcester took out a life insurance policy on himself and borrowed $1200 on it to fund his expenses.

  • Photo 60A015

    UMMA 60A015 Doctor Frank S. Bourns and his Tagbanua guide. Tagbarus, Palawan, January 1892

  • Photo 60A003

    UMMA 60A003 Our work-room in the tribunal at Capiz, Panay. October 1890

  • Photo 60A004

    UMMA 60A004 Bourns, myself and two servants, when the worse for wear. Guimaras, Iloilo Province

  • Photo 60A005

    UMMA 60A005 Dr. Bourns and myself dressed in white. Salag Dako, Guimaras, June 1891

  • Photo 60A006

    UMMA 60A006 Our permanent camp. Baco River, Mindoro, March 1891

  • Photo 60A014

    UMMA 60A014 Doc. Bourns and myself at Jolo. Jolo Island, December 1891

Worcester 1890-93 Expedition

Worcester returned to Ann Arbor in 1888, graduated with an A.B. in zoology in 1889, and quickly sought out opportunities to return to the Philippines. With Frank Bourns, a friend and colleague from the Steere Expedition, Worcester received funding from the University of Minnesota and a private donor to collect specimens for the Minnesota Academy of Natural Science. They spent two and a half years (1890-1893) collecting more than 3000 specimens of birds, reptiles, mammals, butterflies, shells and ethnographic objects.

Back in the United States in 1893, Worcester was hired by U-M as a lecturer of zoology. Over the next few years, Worcester and Bourns authored several publications on Philippine birds and in 1895 Worcester was promoted to the position of Assistant Professor of Zoology and Curator of the University Museum.

First Philippine Commission

  • Photo 58C001

    UMMA 58C001 The First United States Philippine Commission in session (General Otis, Admiral Dewey, Mr. McArthur, Secretary of the Commission, President Schurman, Colonel Denby, and myself). THIS IS THE ONLY PICTURE OF ALL OF THE MEMBERS OF THE FIRST PHILIPPINE COMMISSION TOGETHER WHICH WAS EVER TAKEN (capitalized in original collection catalog). Manila, 1899

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    UMMA 58C005 Head of stairway and part of sala in house occupied by First Philippine Commission. Malate, Manila, 1899

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    UMMA 58C009 House to which the office of the First Philippine Commission was transferred shortly before our departure for the United States. Manila, December 16, 1899

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    UMMA 58C003 House occupied by the First Philippine Commission. Front view. Malate, Manila, 1899

With a new wife and a desire to further improve his position, Worcester made the decision to pursue graduate studies in Germany. To earn money for his studies, he wrote a popular book on the Philippines, based on the letters he had written during his two trips. This book, The Philippine Islands and Their People, appeared in September 1898, less than a month after the U.S. Navy, under Admiral George Dewey, had occupied Manila. Given the intense interest of the American public in their new territory, the book was an immediate and resounding success, even reaching the attention of President McKinley. In December 1898, on his way to New York to catch a ship to Germany, Worcester was summoned to meet with the president to report on his Philippine experiences.

Worcester's plans for further zoological training were quickly derailed when the president asked him to serve on the First Philippine Commission. He left for the Philippines on February 13, 1899, the only civilian member of the Commission.

Second Philippine Commission

  • Photo 58D047

    UMMA 58D047 The "flag ship" on which Governor Taft ascended the Abra River from Vigan to Bangued.

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    UMMA 58D049 The Commission ready to start up the Abra River on rafts. Abra River, near Vigan, Ilocos Sur, August 13, 1901

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    UMMA 58D052 Arch in honor of the Commission. San Jose, Antique province, April 13, 1901

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    UMMA 58Q025 Barrack. San Lazaro cholera detention camp. Manila, 1902

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    UMMA 58Q070 Nurses and patients in the leper colony hospital. Culion, 1905

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    UMMA 56A030 Governor Joven and other officials on rice thresher. Murica, Tarlac, 1903

  • Photo 56A031

    UMMA 56A031 Threshing rice with carabaos. Pasay, Rizal, 1906

The following September, he returned to Washington to oversee the compilation and publication of the Commission's 1600 page report. He continued his service as a member of the Second Philippine Commission (the only person to serve on both), headed by William H. Taft.

Secretary of Interior

In 1901, Worcester was appointed the Secretary of Interior of the Commission Government, a position he held until 1913, making him the longest serving administrator in the colonial government. This was an extremely powerful position that oversaw a number of government bureaus: Health, Forestry, Public Lands, Agriculture, Weather, Mining, Government Laboratories, and Non-Christian Tribes. The last three were subsequently consolidated into the Bureau of Science. Worcester had a long-standing interest in photography, and a government photographer was attached to the Bureau. Charles Martin was appointed to this position in 1902 and accompanied Worcester on many of his missions, documenting geography, colonial ventures, and Philippine peoples.

  • Photo 05A010

    UMMA 05A010 Blas Villamor, Bakidan, Saking, and two other brothers of Bakidan, and myself. There are six brothers in this family and they rule the upper Nabuagan river valley. Bakidan is the most powerful. Kalingan of Bunuan, Cagayan, 1905

  • Photo 01A002

    UMMA 01A002 Negrito man, type 1, and myself, to show relative size. Mariveles, Bataan, 1901

  • Photo 58M119

    UMMA 58M119 Our party at lunch on top of Mt. Malaya. 1908

  • Photo 58M140

    UMMA 58M140 Mr. Zinn, Lieutenant Fortisch, Lieutenant Governor Lewis and myself on trip through Bukidnon. Near Ountian, Bukidon, September 14, 1907

Throughout his tenure, Worcester was a controversial figure. He was a fierce opponent of Philippine independence and a firm believer in the colonial mission, creating enmity both within the Philippines and in the United States. His interests in the non-Christian tribes were fueled in part by his tense relations with cosmopolitan urban Filipinos and in part by his fierce paternalistic commitment to the "civilizing mission" of the colonial authority. In newspaper editorials, publications, public lectures, and, often, courts of law, he argued that Filipinos were unable to govern themselves, angering Philippine Nationalists and anti-imperialists in the United States alike. After a particularly fierce controversy in 1912, Worcester submitted his resignation from government service to President Taft. Taft refused and Worcester remained in his position for nearly another year, into the first year of Woodrow Wilson's presidency (Wilson had run on a platform supporting Philippine independence). In September 1913, Worcester was offered an appointment as the vice-president of the Philippine American Company—a New York-based corporation that invested in plantations, mines, and other ventures. He left government service but stayed in the Philippines until his death in 1924. He left behind a complex and troubled legacy—and thousands of photographs and documents with which to trace his career and explore the history of U.S. colonialism and the colonial gaze in the Philippines.


  1. Hutterer, Karl L. 1978. Dean C. Worcester and Philippine Anthropology. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 6: 125-156.
  2. Biography of Dean C. Worcester, Bentley Historical Library