Part I. From the Viceroyalties to the Enlightenment
Few is discussed in schools on how the science was developed outside the European continent. Although Latin America has been portrayed as a receptor of scientific knowledge, it has also been an important producer.
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Latin America experienced a large lag in the development of sciences throughout the 20th century. While Argentina, Mexico or Uruguay possess an old scientific history that goes back to the Colonial Epoch, Venezuela and Bolivia started to create their own scientific knowledge just during the last century, and others such as Peru saw the dawn and dusk at the beginning of the same century. Several milestones are unavoidably mentioned in the science textbooks, such as the discovery of the clorofluorocarbonates (CFC) and their role in the detriment of the ozone layer by the Mexican chemist Mario Molina, the discovery of monoclonal body production by the Argentine César Milestein, or the discovery of the Major Complex of Histocompatibility by the Venezuelan Baruj Benacerraf, all of them honoured with the Nobel Prize of Chemistry and Medicine, respectively.
Despite that development, the region accounts for only a total of five Nobel Prizes in Sciences: three for Argentina, one for Mexico and another one for Venezuela. The equivalent to Nobel Prize in Mathematics, the Fields Medal, was conceded to a Latin American just last year, for Brazil, and the equivalent in Geosciences, Biology and Astronomy, the Crafoord Prize, is yet to be awarded to a Latin American scientist.
There are a lot of circumstances entangled in the Latin American history of science, mostly due to the convulsive events behind it; however, loads of things can be said on the Latin American science. To understand the context of this history we must refer to the achievements under the rule of the Spanish Crown.
The Colonial Period
Sciences were not known as today they are in the Europe of the Colonial Spain. The Renaissance was just starting to develop and the bases for an analytical and rational appreciation of the nature were to be settled. When the Spanish Crown created its colonies in the American continent, the scholastic method prevailed in the teaching of philosophy.
The first University founded in the continent was the University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the La Española Island where currently it is settled the city of Santo Domingo, capital of Dominican Republic, which received the papal recognition in 1538 as the first university in the continent. However, the first University with fully recognition by the Spanish Crown would be founded until 1551 in the city of Lima, Peru, as the Royal University of Saint Marcus, which would get the papal recognition until 1571 when it became the Royal and Pontifical University of Saint Marcus. Both universities would begin the importation of the Spanish medieval knowledge that was developing in the peninsula, where the humanities and the arts found their grandeur in what is now known as the Spanish Golden Century.
The scholastic method was based on the interpretation from the past authorities. The classes at Universities were given as readings by a professor sat in a cathedra, a chair with arms, whilst the students read and listened to the professor.
The interest on the Natural History started at the Royal and Pontifical University of Saint Marcus. The work of the conqueror chroniclers, such as that by Pedro Cieza de León (1518-1554), was continued by posterior historians who documented the Peruvian ecosystems. Amongst the first teachers at the University of Saint Marcus outstood the Jesuit José de Acosta, who wrote his Natural and Moral History of the Indias, where he described the Peruvian environment in terms of its flora, fauna and geography, as well as the rites and accustoms of the indigenous people in the New Spain and the Peru. This work is also transcendental for it contains the first hypothesis about the origin of the Americans, and quite long time before the Europeans knew about the Bering Strait, Acosta hypothesised that the Americans migrated somehow from Asia.
In 1551, the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico opened its doors, and became the official school of the Empire. As logical, the organisation of the teaching followed a medieval scheme: the trivium, which comprised the arts of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logics, and the quadrivium, comprised by the arts of Arithmetic, Music, Geometry and Astronomy. It was in this University were the first scientific treatise was published in the continent, the Physica speculatio (1557) by the philosopher fray Alonso de la Vera Cruz, which was a compendium of all the knowledge accumulated in the areas of Physics, Biology, Mineralogy and Psychology, sciences considered back then as part of the Natural Philosophy.
In the 17th century, the rationalism started to rise in Europe and had some admixture with the ideals of Protestantism, whose practitioners took a contrary and critical attitude against the Catholic Church. The born of the sciences as entities that questioned the intellectual authorities and that distanced themselves from the literal interpretations of the Bible generated in Spain an isolationism from the rest of Europe. The mechanist conception of the world built upon the ideas of Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, Newton and several others, ideas that led to the First Scientific Revolution, never made their way to the other side of Atlantic in that century.
However, the Spanish isolationism did not close the doors to the advancements in Medicine, which was developed with the same slowness both in Spain and the rest of Europe. The Colonial Medicine at the 17th century was characterised by the discovery of the ways in which the indigenous people healed certain ailments with specific Medicinal plants, hence the description of the Natural History of the colonial territories helped to produce important medical advances.
A case in point, the Spanish Jesui Bernabé Cobo y Perales (1582-1657) who lived in Peru. His thorough Botanical descriptions of the plants in the region led to the discovery of the first treatment against malaria. Cobo described the tree of quina (Cinchona sp.), which inhabits the Peruvian Andes and produces a substance that attacks the parasite, and was the first person in taking a sample of the plant towards Europe in 1632.
Two years later, the wife of the Viceroy of Peru Luis Jerónimo de Cabrera, the Duchess of Chinchón, fell ill of malaria in the city of Loxa, Peru. Under the recommendation of the Jesuits she employed an infusion of the bark of the quina tree in sweetened water to treat her malaise, because the Quechua people used it to prevent the spasms caused by the low temperatures. The treatment contained quinine, which is hypothesised to generate the accumulation of haem groups (the ferric part of the haemoglobin) in the inside of the cells of the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, the causing agent of malaria. After her recovery, the Duchess spread the treatment amongst the indigenous and Spanish inhabitants of the Peru and imported it to Europe in 1640 as a new discovery. By then, Cobo had already imported the same plant to Rome, where after the announcement of the discovery was used by the first time to treat malaria in the Roman marshes, where the disease was endemic.
The existence of the parasite as the causing agent of the malaria was unknown and discovered until 1948, neither the transmission of the disease by mosquitoes was acknowledged, same which was proved until 1898, however the employment of the bark of the quina against the symptoms of malaria supposed the biggest breakthrough of the Spanish Colonial Medicine.
Blood smear slide showing two forms of the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, a free-living form amid the erythrocytes (open arrow) and a ring-shaped form inside one of the blood cells (closed arrow). Jenkayaks
When the 18th century and the Enlightenment settled in Europe, an economic crisis shook the Spanish Empire, allowing the well-developed scientific knowledge produced in Europe to come into Spain and its colonies. Many of the new technologies that favoured the extraction of minerals and the exploitation of other natural resources required the employment of knowledge that would have never been produced by the scholastic-Aristotelic system. The rationalist ideas that had no relevance whatsoever in the colonial America, only a century before, acquired a central importance for the Spanish Empire.
In the New Spain, what is now Mexico, the Enlightenment begun in the 1730 decade, time when the conflicts arose with the Jesuits. The Jesuits, members of the Jesus’ Company, were who had the biggest agricultural emporia in the continent, with maximums of production obtained by quite innovative methods. However, the position of the Jesuits in a Europe that embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment in every possible context put them in check. Their unconditional defence of the Papacy, the scholastic thinking and their financial empowerment they had brought them a lot of enemies and resulted in their cause of expulsion in several States. The first country who expelled them was Portugal, in 1759, which deported around one thousand Jesuits from Portugal and its colonies, Brazil included, to the Pontifical States.On April 2nd 1791 the King Charles III of Spain decreed the expulsion of all the members of the Jesus’ Company from the Crown territories.
In the New Spain the first scientists were the creoles, who started to develop and create a nationalistic identity of what meant to be a Novo Hispanic. The creation of the Viceroyalty of Rio de La Plata, today Argentina and Uruguay, in 1776 imported the ideas of the Enlightenment to the south of the continent and built the first colony cemented on such ideals.
The first meetings of scientists happened in the biggest cities of the viceroyalties, and from time to time they used to gather to discuss the progresses of their respective fields in clubs known in Spanish as tertulias, a scientific social circle. The medieval ideas deeply ingrained in the Spanish system started to dwindle and rapidly the theories of alchemy, the Phlogiston and astrology were abandoned.
The first scientific institutions of New Spain were created in 1768 when the Royal School of Surgery was founded, posteriorly, in 1781, begun the Royal Academy of Noble Arts, followed by the Botanic Garden in 1787, and lastly the Seminar of Mining, in 1792. In the latter were taught the more avant-garde sciences with the aim to develop the archaic mining industry deployed in the viceroyalty. In addition to the production of new knowledge and discoveries in the areas of mining, metallurgy, chemistry, geology and mineralogy, the Seminar also specialised in the teaching of differential and integral calculi, analytical geometry and theoretical chemistry; this was the first House of Sciences in the American continent.
The first director of the Seminar of Mining was Fausto Elhuyar, who specialised in the design and construction of hydraulic pumps as a replacement of the old malacates. The malacates were an indigenous technology utilised to extract minerals and water very similarly to the winches; their efficiency made them the main form of mining extraction in the Spanish colonies. Andrés Manuel Del Río, who was one of the most prominent figures of the Seminar, created the first steam hydraulic pump which was installed at the Moran Mine, in the city of Pachuca. This was the first pump of its class built and operated in America. When the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt visited the continent in 1802 and saw the machine working he wrote that it was quite superior over the ones installed in the Hungarian mines.
Andrés Manuel Del Río was a Novo-Hispanic chemist who transcended as the importer of the Modern Chemistry from France, he himself was a student of Antoine Lavoisier and hence produced the first translation to Spanish of Elements of Chemistry by the French chemist. Del Río also published a Handbook of Orictognosia, the most complete treatise on Mineralogy in the whole Spanish Empire. In the first editions this handbook followed the tradition established by the mining University of Freiberg, but for the next editions it approached more to the new chemical system by Lavoisier.
Del Río was also the first chemist to declare a new chemical element in The New World, which he called as erythronium. He discovered the element at a mine nearby Real del Monte in the municipality of Zimapan, Hidalgo; he first noted that the salts of the mineral, a sort of brownish lead, had loads of colours, thus he called it first as panchromium, but when such salts burnt, they always emitted red light, for what he call it erythronium. Shortly after, Alexander von Humboldt took the sample to Europe where the French chemist Hippolyte Victor Collet-Descotils declared that it was merely an impure sample of chrome. Del Río accepted the correction and withdrew the claim. Thirty years after, the Swedish chemist Nils Gabriel Sefström rediscovered the chemical element and named it vanadium, in honour of the Goddess Vanadis (Freyja). The same year, 1831, the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler confirmed that the first discoverer was actually Del Río, and even his countryman the Geologist George William Featherstonhaugh suggested it should be called as rionium after Del Rio, but since the Novo-Hispanic chemist withdrew his claim, the solicitude never prospered.
From the same Seminar also Luis Lindner was an outstanding figure, who achieved to establish the first laboratory on Analytical Chemistry in the region, with a comparable quality to those found in Europe.
In 1772 the first medical journal in America was printed in New Spain, El Mercurio Volante, “The Flying Mercury”, edited by the Mathematician and Physicist José Ignacio Bartolache. Additional to this achievement, he also was responsible for highlighting the importance of Maths for the development of the viceroyalty. He was also the first one in writing a scientific text in Nahuatl, Netemachtilztli, translated in Spanish as “Possible News for Healthy and Ill people”. He developed as well the first medical treatment for anaemia based upon ferric pills and in 1779 he played a crucial role in the fight against the smallpox epidemics that scourged New Spain. Previously, Bartolache collaborated with several other Novo-Hispanic Mathematicians and Astronomers, such as Antonio Alzate, Joaquín Velázquez de León, and Antonio de León y Gama, who performed observations of the heavenly bodies and determined a rather precise latitude for Mexico City: 19° 26’.
José Antonio Alzate was also transcendental in the diffusion of scientific thinking when he created the Gacetas de Literatura, “Gazettes of Literature”. Alzate was a polymath theologian who ventured in all the scientific fields. He was the first Meteorologist in New Spain and for such reason loads of papers in the Gazettes were pioneer essays on Meteorology and atmospheric electricity, where even letters by Benjamin Franklin were submitted. In November 14, 1789, an aurora borealis was sought at Mexico City causing panic amongst the population who never saw anything alike. The Gazettes worked as a mean to explain to the citizens the physical causes of the phenomenon and were thus distributed amongst the local media.
On the opposite side of the continent, the Viceroyalty of Río de La Plata, was founded in 1779 the Protomedicato del Río de La Plata, the last protomedicato being founded by the Crown (after those in New Spain, New Granada and Peru), but the first in following as an enlightened medical school, emulating the University of Edinburgh. His first graduate and posterior director was the Irish Migue O’Gorman, who direct the preparation of physicist, nurses and apothecaries towards the scientific thinking.
In 1799, also in La Plata, was founded the Nautical School by Manuel Belgrano, who would achieve to boost the first school in the continent in the teaching of Architecture and Design under the scientific precepts of the mathematics and geometry. This School became into a research centre in Mathematics until it saw its end after being declared as unnecessary by the Spanish Crown in the aftermath of the English invasions in 1806.
Physiocracy was a French that sparkled and spread throughout Europe, based upon the idea of considering the nature as the source of richness for any nation and the knowledge and exploitation of such as the best way to secure their persistence. Thus the European nations begun their ambition for exploring and knowing the world. Back then, the Empire who possessed the most of the explored world was the Spanish Crown, and with a forthcoming crisis, the idea of physiocracy sounded encouraging.
During the Enlightenment, the Spanish Crown provided with the biggest amount of money and resources to perform a scientific inventory in all their possessions in America and Asia, investing much more than any other European nations. The King Charles III felt inspired by the economic power of France acquired through the agriculture and commanded four expeditions to systematically explore the Colonial territories and thus to update the inventories created in the previous centuries.
The First Botanical Expedition started in 1778 in the Viceroyalty of Peru, leaded by the naturalist Hipolito Ruiz Lopez, accompanied by the Frend physicist Joseph Dombey, the apothecary Jose Anotnio Pavón, and the illustrators Jose Brunete and Isidro Galvez. The expedition departed from the city of Cadiz in 1777 and arrived to the city of Lima in 1778. Through 11 years, the naturalists discovered 3,000 species of plants that were arranged into a herbarium, then described and illustrated to set a collection shipped to Botanical Garden of Madrid. Due to the amount of information collected during the expedition, it was created with the mere aim to store it the Botanical Office for Peru in Madrid to organise and publish the discoveries. It was one of the most important expeditions of the 18th century. The summary of the expedition was published between 1798 and 1802, the first three tomes at least, titled as Flora Peruviana et Chilensis; the situation of Spain after the Napoleonic Wars impeded the publication of the next two tomes, which remained unedited, and of the book Flora Huayalquensis, that was a compendium of the flora from Ecuador by José Tatalla Navacués, who replaced the French physicist Domeby when, after quarrels with Antonio Pavón and Hipolito Ruiz, abandoned the expedition in 1784. The work was finally published only until 1991.
The Second Botanical Expedition took place in the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada, started in 1783 and lasted 30 years, the longest one. Due to the duration of this expedition was the most productive but without the scientific strictness seen in the First Expedition. What was meant to be a detailed description turned into an inventory with the aim to know the most of the Viceroyalty: 20,000 plant species and 7,000 animals were discovered in this expedition. However, it was the one with the most transcendence. The untimely arrival of the scientific activities to the colony generated the creation of the Astronomical Observatory of Santa Fe Bogota, one the first ones in the continent, and a selective community of scientists and artists.
The expedition was led by Jose Celestino Mutis, who drew his attention to the increasing on the agricultural production in the region. Thus, this expedition was the most productive in scientific knowledge per se: new mechanisms to culture tea were proposed in Bogota and to transfer the commercial routes for tea from Asia towards America; the discovery of the medical properties of several plants such as the potato, the yucca, the vine guaco and the ipecacuana –one of the most effective emetic-; Mutis particularly performed experiments to acclimate the canelo, the anise, and the nutmeg. Regarding the proposal about the tea, Mutis considered that in Colombia should be found a plant aromatic and tasteful enough as to allow the colony to become a region without any dependence neither on the English or Dutch commerce, nor the commerce with China nor Japan. This avant-garde vision by Mutis would be essential to urge for the independence of the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada from the Spanish Crown, which would be declared on July 20th 1810.
However, the invasion of Spain by France on May 2nd 1808 and the dead of Mutis on September 11th in the same year, would put an end to the idea that would have changed the course of the economic history of Latin America.
The Third Botanical Expedition has been considered as the most complicated of the four. This one commenced in the year 1787 and would settle the bases for the scientific knowledge on the animal and plant diversity of Mexico and its surroundings. The produced collection consisted in the creation of a duplicate for each specimen so there would be one collection in the city of Madrid and another one in the city of Mexico. The outcome of this was the identification of 1327 species. The scientific strictness of this expedition allowed to found the studies on Ornithology and Ichthyology as formal sciences by the first time in the continent.
The expedition was led by Jose Mariano Mocine, Novo-Hispan, and Martin Sessé. It started at the city of Mexico and then extended slowly to the Huasteca region. In 1789 it reached Acapulco and then started the exploration of the Pacific coast. From there, a group continued northwards in 1790 reaching Chihuahua and the turning back to Aguascalientes. Another group advanced to Sinaloa and from this expedition, one group went all the way up to Canada, where they stayed working from 1792-1793. A last expedition would be mandated to thoroughly study California. The expedition was scheduled to finish in 1794, but the group did not gather in Mexico City until one year later in 1795. When a bigger extension on the deadline the expedition took advantage to also explore Cuba, Guatemala, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico, finishing in 1803.
Mociño got to be considered the best naturalist in America influencing with his ideas in other naturalists on the Viceroyalties and being acknowledge even by Humboldt and the French botanist Agustin de Candolle. By 1803 Mociño and Sessé travelled back to Spain to store the collection, but because of the Napoleonic Wars, few could have been done. By the end of the Independence Spanish War, Sessé have dead in 1805 and Mociño was exiled because he was considered to have showed too much support towards France. Mociño ran to Montpellier where he intended to preserve the most he could from the expedition with the help of De Candolle.
Finally, the Fourth Expedition, the one which can be considered as the summit of the Spanish Enlightment, would be later known as the Malaspina Expedition, commanded by the Italian Alejandro Malaspina. The aim of this ambitious expedition was to reassure the domain of Spain over the South Pacific, an Ocean that was being explored by French, Dutch and English explorers despite it had been considered a Spanish sea. The expedition, ordered in 1798, should emulate and surpass those realised by Cook, Bouganville and La Pérouse. The journey commenced in Cadiz, arriving to Buenos Aires and starting and attempt of a circumnavigation journey, never accomplished. Malaspina travelled along the American Pacific Coast, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, as well as the archipelagos and islands on the South Pacific. It was indeed one of the greatest expeditions of the history that tends to be forgotten by the historians who limit their accounts to the aforementioned three explorers.
This first part ends here, where Spain gradually lost the power over its colonies and the science in Latin America must be relegated to a backstage while the previous colonies convulsed in their seek for independence from a Crown in decadence.
Cover image: Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland at the base of Chimborazo, by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1810).
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