Catholic Scientist of the Past

José Celestino Mutis

April 6, 1732 to September 11, 1808

José Celestino Mutis (April 6, 1732 to September 11, 1808) was a Spanish priest, physician, botanist, and mathematician.  After his arrival in Santa Fe de Bogotá as physician of the viceroy of Nueva Granada (a territory that included what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and Guyana), he became interested in scientific research in several areas, especially in the flora of Nueva Granada and  its therapeutic applications. Upon the arrival of a new viceroy-archbishop, Mutis was made director of the Botanical Expedition of Nueva Granada, whose mission was to investigate the flora, fauna, and mineral resources of the region. As a result of this and of his previous work, he came to produce a large herbarium of more than 24,000 specimens, part of which was deposited in the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.  He was especially interested in the bark of quina or cinchona trees (of the genus Cinchona native to South America), which has therapeutic effect against malaria and antipyretic (i.e. anti-fever) effect.  Mutis found the cinchona tree in the area of ​​present-day Colombia and published articles on its different botanical, agricultural, commercial, and medical aspects, describing the distinct species and their various therapeutic values, as well as achieving its cultivation for the first time.  He collaborated with the famous naturalist Carl Linnaeus and was elected member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.  All of his work on the quina was collected in his posthumous books Arcano de la Quina and Historia de los Árboles de la Quina. In addition to pursuing his own research, Mutis promoted the modernization of university education and scientific research in Nueva Granada in multiple fields. He inaugurated there the Chair of Mathematics and Physics of the Colegio del Rosario, disseminating and translating the works of Newton as well as heliocentric astronomy. From that position, he promoted the building of the Bogotá Astronomical Observatory, the oldest in the Americas, and was appointed astronomer to King Carlos III of Spain. He was entrusted with the reform of the Medical Study Plan in New Granada, where he introduced updated training.  Among other areas to which he devoted his attention were local mining and philology.  Mutis was a devout Catholic and was ordained a priest 12 years after his arrival in New Granada.

[Author: Gonzalo Colmenarejo, PhD. IMDEA Food.]

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