Francisco Jose de Caldas

Date: 1800
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


Francisco Jose de Caldas (1768-1816) was a self-taught polymath who managed to establish himself in Nueva Granada's burgeoning scientific community, one that he did much to legitimize internationally. He was a patriot naturalist, one who studied all aspects of local nature in order to vindicate Spanish American science in general and contribute to international learning on the whole.

His earliest achievement was the independent discovery of the hypsometric principle: water boils at lower temperatures at higher altitudes. In a published treatise, Caldas demonstrated that altitude could be ascertained accurately by measuring the temperature at which water boiled. Just as this discovery can be understood as deriving from extensive contact with Andean nature, so too was his work on plant distribution made possible by the great variation of flora at various heights in Nueva Granada. This work on plant geography was very similar to that of Alexander von Humboldt; indeed, the two worked together closely during that naturalist's trip to South America.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Caldas began working for Jose Celestino Mutis, leader of Spain's Royal Botanical Expedition. Caldas was sent to collect and catalog several varieties of Peruvian cinchona and, in 1805, Mutis made him the head of Bogota's new astronomical observatory. While making cosmic and meteorological observations from his one-man observatory, Caldas also began publishing the scientific journal Seminario del Nuevo Reino de Granada in 1808. He explicitly sought the readership and support of "men of letters and good patriots," and many leading intellectuals contributed to this newspaper. The Seminario reflected the breadth of Caldas' own interests as well as his insistence that science be applied to creating public happiness, and thus included works on roads, exact sciences, geography, agriculture, navigation, statistics, soil, and history. Knowledge by locals, for locals.

Caldas' patriotic science would, however, cause his death. During the wars of independence, Royalist forces under General Pablo Morillo captured Popayan, where Caldas had taken refuge before Bogota had fallen. After ineffectual beseeching to be given a year to complete his magnum opus on botany, Caldas was executed by a firing squad.

Reference: Appel, John Wilton. "Francisco Jose de Caldas: A Scientist at Work in Nueva Granada." In Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 84, part 5, 1994.

Saldana, Juan Jose. "Science and Public Happiness during the Latin American Enlightenment." In Science in Latin America: A History. Edited by Juan Jose Saldana. Trans. Bernabe Madrigal. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

CITATION: "Francisco Caldas y Tenoro (1771-1816)." 19th Century. The Granger Collection, New York. 0058921.