Jose Celestino Mutis

Date: 1784
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


Royally sponsored projects were not the only Hispanic scientific expeditions in Latin America during the colonial period. Both the Catholic Church and American viceroyalties had the money and autonomy to authorize expeditions for their own objectives, goals that were sometimes quite different than those promoted by the Bourbon monarchs of the late eighteenth century. As in the other New World kingdoms, leaders in Nueva Granada (present-day northern South America) were employing specialists and technicians, especially individuals skilled in the useful arts, to meet local challenges. Viceroys hired peninsular and creole engineers, agricultural experts, and botanists to strengthen local infrastructure and find new sources of wealth from minerals and plants.

Jose Celestino Mutis (1732-1808), who first arrived as the viceroy's physician in 1760, was deeply involved with almost all of Nueva Granada's viceregal scientific projects. By displaying remarkable erudition and maintaining close ties to Nueva Granada's viceroys, Mutis became an influential, even dominant figure in local science. His most renowned endeavor was acting as head of the Expedicion Botanico, a project initiated by the viceroy and archbishop in 1781. The goal was to collect, illustrate, preserve, and classify as many local plants as possible. Madrid's Royal Botanical Garden officially incorporated Mutis and his team into a larger imperial project, but the viceroy insisted on maintaining significant autonomy, including the right to keep all botanical slides and manuscripts in local institutions. Such viceregal measures reflect the Enlightenment notion of using applied science to local ends.

Mutis was one of the very few scientists from colonial Latin America to be recognized by Europeans during his lifetime and to be remembered by historians of science today. He was a scientific celebrity in South America, and European scientists like Balmis and Humboldt sought him out during their own American scientific expeditions. His death in 1808, which corresponded with the first political revolts in Spanish America, is often used to mark the end of the era of Enlightenment colonial science .

Reference: Lafuente, Antonio and Leoncio Lopez-Ocon. "Scientific Traditions and Enlightenment Expeditions in Eighteenth-century Hispanic America." In Science in Latin America: A History. Edited by Juan Jose Saldana, translated by Bernabe Madrigal. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006, pp. 123-150.

CITATION: Jose Celestino Mutis. Oil painting by R. Cristobal, 1930. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. V001805.