Jose Antonio Alzate y Ramirez

Date: 1768
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


Jose Antonio Alzate (1737-1799) was New Spain's leading scientist in the eighteenth century and manifested many of the characteristics associated with the Spanish American Enlightenment. He dabbled in chemistry, meteorology, and astronomy (he was one of several scientists worldwide to study the transit of Venus in 1769) yet also devoted much of his work to applied sciences, like mining and even silkworm breeding. Furthermore, he worked to build science on indigenous knowledge, not contradict it.

Not only was Alzate an active experimenter and observer of nature, but he worked to popularize science among Mexican intellectuals in the hopes that local institutions and practices would be improved and modernized for the good of all Mexicans. He published two journals, one of which, Diario Literario de Mexico, was the first journal in all of Latin America to make modern science available to the reading public. In the Diario's eight volumes, Alzate and the journal's other contributors treated such diverse topics as the economic advantages of improving agriculture, the geography of New Spain, earthquakes, medicine, and theology (the Spanish American Enlightenment remained closely tied with religion in many respects--indeed, Alzate himself was a priest).

Above all, Alzate was an exclusively Mexican kind of empiricist, fusing the select elements of European science with indigenous knowledge to create a pragmatic and useful new science. Herbal medicine provides the best example of this trend. Alzate promoted local knowledge of medicinal plants that could be proven by empirical testing, not the Linnaean system of taxonomy that grouped plants with widely differing medicinal value into similar orders because of mere visible characteristics. His reluctance to accept Linnaeus sparked a fierce debate between Alzate's followers and the leaders of Mexico's new botanical garden (see the Scientific Expeditions topic for more on this institution). It also contributed to the entrenchment of Mexican science, an approach that promoted indigenous knowledge both within and opposed to Europe's scientific systems.

This mixture of local and European knowledge contributed to Mexico's ideals of independence by reifying the idea that--in politics as in science--indigenous tradition and modernity could be compounded. Alzate's creole science also did much to discredit diffusionist notions among historians of science that claimed Latin American science was merely a poor reflection of that of Spain. Instead, learned Mexicans were using all of the resources at their disposal--indigenous, creole, and European--to develop the most useful science for their newly-emerging motherland.

Reference: Lafuente, Antonio.  "Enlightenment in an Imperial Context: Local Science in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Hispanic World."  In Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise (2000), p. 155-173.

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: Jose Antonio Alzate. Lithograph by S. Hernandez. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. V0000142.