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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Jose Celestino Mutis

Eminent naturalist and scientist in South America, b. at Cadiz, Spain, April 6, 1732; d. at Bogota, Colombia, Sept. 2, 1808

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Errata* for Jose Celestino Mutis:

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Mutis, Jose Celestino, eminent naturalist and scientist in South America, b. at Cadiz, Spain, April 6, 1732; d. at Bogota, Colombia, September 2, 1808. Mutis studied medicine at Seville and Madrid and, from 1757, practiced as a physician at Madrid, where he applied himself to botany. Soon afterwards he went to South America as physician in ordinary to the newly appointed Viceroy of New Granada, Mesia de la Cerda (Marques de la Vega). In November, 1760, he landed in Cartagena, and remained in New Granada for five decades. By his great zeal for science and his untiring and versatile activity, he became more and more the soul of all scientific undertakings in Spanish South America. Although he at first taught mathematics and, about the end of his life, founded an observatory in Bogota and directed the same as astronomer, he devoted his energies almost wholly to researches in the natural history of New Granada, even continuing this work, when, in 1772, he became a cleric (priest?) and canon at the cathedral of Bogota. During the first years of his life at Bogota he had planned the botanical exploration of the whole country, intending to write a book on the flora of New Granada. For his researches he maintained substations at Cacota and La Montuosa, which Linne supposed to be situated in Mexico. He settled in Mariquita after he had been appointed in 1783 by Charles III, under the viceroy and Archbishop Gongora, leader of the "Expedition botanica del Nueva Remo de Granada", which was founded by the State. Here, as Alexander von Humboldt, an eye witness, relates, Mutis laid out a plantation of cinchona. Mutis was obliged to train his whole staff of assistants (collectors, painters, engravers, etc.); he also taught several native botanists, e.g., Zea, Caldas, and Restrepo, furthermore his nephew and successor, Sinforoso Mutis. At that time, Mutis was widely known; Linne, who received from him South American plants and corresponded frequently with him, calls him "phytologorum americanorum princeps". Linne's son defined the genus Mutisia in 1781. The Spanish botanist Cavanilles lauded him in 1791 as "botanicorum facile princeps". At Bogota, where he spent the last ten years of his life, the famous explorers Humboldt and Bonpland stayed with him for two months in 1801, filled with admiration for his rich collections. Their famous work, "Plantes equinoctiales" (1818), is adorned with a beautiful portrait of Mutis, and Humboldt erected a glorious monument to the American investigator by writing his biography ("Biographic universelle", XXX, Paris, 1821).

Subsequent generations were perhaps justified in judging Mutis less favorably, but it is unjust on the part of some critics to seek to degrade Mutis to the position of an unimportant amateur or to abuse him. Mutis committed the fault that he never ended his researches, and thus published almost nothing during his life time. He, furthermore, had the misfortune to have his scientific legacy at first remain totally unnoticed in consequence of the political disorders of that time. His museum consisted of 24,000 dried plants, 5000 drawings of plants by his pupils, and a collection of woods, shells, resins, minerals, and skins. These treasures arrived safely at Madrid in 105 boxes, and the plants, manuscripts, and drawings were sent to the botanical gardens, where they were buried in a tool-house. Mutis's cinchona investigations render his work of lasting importance. While he was not the first to discover the genuine cinchona for New Granada as became known with certainty only after his death he rendered important services by his study of the cinchonas, their geographical distribution in Colombia, their species and varieties, and their utilization for medicine. This is shown by the trade, which developed in such a manner that (e.g.) the seaport of Cartagena alone exported from New Granada 1,200,000 pounds of cinchona bark in 1806, while previous to 1776 this country produced no quinquina at all. This is furthermore shown by Mutis's writings, which, however, were not printed in full until 1870. Mutis himself published in 1793 and 1794 a short monograph on cinchonas in "Diario de Santa Fe de Bogota". A year later appeared "Observaciones y conocimientos de la quina" (in 4 numbers, 608-11, of "Mercurio Peruano de Lima", 1795). The above mentioned Zea published sometime later "Memoria sobre la quina segun los principios del Senor Mutis" ("Anales de Historia Natural", Madrid, 1800). Mutis sent his chief work "El arcano de la quina" in manuscript to Madrid, but the war with France prevented its publication; in 1828 the Spanish physician Hernandez de Gregorio edited the first three parts of this work with Mutis's portrait ("El arcano de la quina. Discurso que confine la parte medics, de las cuatro especies de quinas oficinalis", Madrid, 1828, 263 pages). The manuscript of the botanical-scientific part was discovered by Clements R. Markham in a shed in the botanical gardens of Madrid; he published it under the title: "Tabula synoptica ad specierum generis Chinthong determinationem. Quinilogiae pars quarta" (edited in Markham, "The Cinchona species of New Granada", London, 1867). The tables, which Mutis selected for this work, were published in 1870 in facsimile by Triana ("Nouvelles etudes sur les Quinquina", Paris). Through these writings it became evident, as some special investigators confessed, that Mutis had penetrated deeply into the study of the cinchonas of Central Colombia. It may be mentioned that Mutis distinguished four species of cinchonas with an officinal bark, and he added to them twenty four varieties. For other manuscripts of Mutis see Colmeiro; a part of Mutis's correspondence is to be found in the work: "A selection of the correspondence of Linnaeus and other naturalists" (London, 1881).


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