He was a priest in an age of Inquisition. A doctor. An explorer. A botanist. Born in Cádiz in 1732, José Celestino Mutis had as many occupations as there are historians questioning his legacy. Even though Mutis may not have published his research, his name is indelibly linked with the dawn of science in Colombia
In 1760, Mutis traveled to the Nuevo Reino de Granada – New Kingdom of Granada- (as Colombia was then known) as viceroy Pedro Messía de la Cerda’s personal physician. Heading up the Magdalena River into the interior of the New Kingdom and towards the high plateau of Bogotá, Mutis disembarked near Mariquita and with quill in hand began documenting the ants that crossed his path. It was the dawn of scientific research in the New World. And a year after departing the motherland, this savant of the Enlightenment arrived in Santa Fe de Bogotá.
With so much to explore and collect, from New Granada’s changing vegetation, to its animals and minerals, Mutis stayed 48 years in the tropical outpost. Upon his death in Bogotá in 1808, Mutis left for future science an invaluable record of American botany.
Although many champion Mutis as the director of the Royal Botanical Expedition and its exhaustive study of the flora and fauna of New Granada, his name outside Colombia is largely unknown. As a founding father of science in the Americas, Mutis never lectured back in the motherland on his findings, nor used Europe’s printing presses to publisg his manuscripts. Instead, he lived a priest’s life and with a monthly income from the Spanish crown.
After his death, and with the first shouts of Independence, the Royal Botanical Expedition ground to a halt. Pablo Morillo, General of the Royal Army, ended the experiment in the Andes and ordered Mutis’ herbarium, illustrations and archives sent to Madrid. The collection of plant specimens, drawings, and manuscripts, was housed in 105 boxes.
The collection fell into oblivion and not until 1952 did it resurface when the governments of Spain and Colombia began to disseminate the findings of the Royal Botanical Expedition. “Mutis is not well known abroad, because he published very little in his time. Almost nothing,” states historian José Antonio Amaya. “Mutis did not have the books necessary to make comparative studies of his findings.”
From a scientific perspective, the Mutis collection is important for Latin America, because he assembled a herbarium of 20,000 species, unique in its time. “Only Joseph Banks in London had a herbarium of a comparable size,” claims Amaya.
Former Colombian Minister of Culture, Paula Marcela Moreno, has noted that thanks to entomologist Edward Wilson, Mutis has earned the recognition as “the great botanist” of Latin America. German Alexander Von Humboldt and Swiss botanist Carl Linnaeus also lauded Mutis for his dedication to documenting natural life. Or as Wilson writes, a man worthy of the “explorer’s pantheon of the New World.”
With the rhetoric of Independence, Mutis fell silent. Historian Jorge Orlando Melo believes that the lack of published works was more of a personal failing than lack of scientific evidence. “He was somewhat slack when it came to publishing and getting his work recognized,” states Melo. “During the 25 years he was in charge of the Royal Botanical Expedition, he took care that everyone on it did their work well, but he didn’t pay much attention to getting the results out.”
Columnist and author Fernando Toledo believes Mutis is less well known than his contemporaries Humboldt and Linnaeus, because he was a provincial man. “Up to his death, New Granada was a Spanish colony. Mutis was born in Cádiz, but worked in a distant province of the kingdom. His influence wasn’t European, but local.”
Historian Jorge Arias de Greiff, believes that Mutis didn’t get the reputation he deserves because he is seen within the region as being an “entrepreneur” rather than a scientist. “He devoted a lot of time to mining. He contracted painters from Quito to make the plates for the Botanical Expedition. In the few scientific papers he did publish, he was neither clear nor emphatic. Everything was tentative,” states De Greiff.
De Greiff questions the Royal Botanical Expedition as a scientific undertaking, given the commercial interests of Spain to make their overseas colony self-sufficient. “Real scientific expeditions only happened after free trade was decreed between Spain and the new Republic,” affirms this historian. He also casts doubt on the good words exchanged between Linnaeus and Mutis. “It was because the Cádiz born scientist sent him free plant specimens which were very rare in Europe.”