Evidence of scientific activity and curiosity among the residents of the island dates to 1581, when Juan Ponce de León II made observations about an eclipse to establish the geographic coordinates of San Juan more exactly. Since the 16th century, those in search of gold, the engineers and artillery men of San Juan's fortifications, the ship captains, the botanists and cartographers, physicians and surgeons who came to the island applied technical knowledge to investigate the physical characteristics of the island and its population. Thus the history of science in Puerto Rico is as long as the history of Puerto Rico itself.
First arts: Botany and medicine
Puerto Rico joined the global dialogue of learned science in the old and refined science of botany. By 1785, the Botanical Garden of Madrid had a correspondent and explorer in Puerto Rico in the form of Juan del Castillo, a native of Aragón. In the late 18th and all of the 19th centuries, the island was visited by botanists from various countries, who usually worked with local residents interested in the topic.
Autopsies were done beginning in 1769, when Governor Muesas "ordered anatomies be done" on three soldiers who died in an epidemic to determine the cause of death and a better treatment. The deaths and relapses, according to the forensic examiners, were due to "excesses committed with fruits and drink." The updating of Spanish medicine that produced the Surgery Colleges founded by King Carlos III reached Puerto Rico in 1790 in the form of Francisco Oller. This Catalan physician and surgeon (grandfather of the painter of the same name) was known for his studies of Puerto Rico's medical problems and his zeal in applying preventative measures against smallpox that were available in Europe (inoculation in 1792, vaccination in 1803).
Over the course of the 19th century, epidemic outbreaks and autopsy reports were scientifically investigated, but above all was the production of descriptions of the natural history of the diseases that affected the population because -- according to the concepts of the time -- of the climate and land in which they lived.
Until about 1930, the research emphasis in Puerto Rico was aimed at agriculture and medicine. The first was the island's main industry and the latter affected the health of the population. Thus those were the two fields of research that were indispensable locally.
Education and Research
The founding of the Council Seminary (1832) as an institution of higher education meant (long term) the introduction of science courses into the curriculum, but only because of the fortuitous arrival of Galician priest Rufo Manuel Fernández (1790-1855), who taught the first classes in chemistry and physics himself in 1834. Two of his earliest students, José Julián Acosta (1825-1891) and Román Baldorioty de Castro (1822-1889), renowned in Puerto Rican politics and letters, studied Physical Sciences and Mathematics in Madrid in 1851. Because there was no university on the island, secondary education took place at the Council Seminary and at the Economic Society of Friends of the Country, and later at the Pharmacy Sub-Delegation, the Provincial Institute of Secondary Education (after 1882) and the Puerto Rican Athenaeum (with its Institution of Higher Education attached to the University of Havana, 1888).
Researchers arose throughout the 19th century, such as the physicians Ramón Emeterio Betances, born in 1830, Agustín Stahl and Manuel Corchado Juarbe, born around 1840, Rafael Del Valle and Manuel Gómez Brioso, born in the 1850s.
Another epidemic, this time in sugar cane, in the second half of the 19th century, led to the creation of expert committees and repeated studies. In 1880, Agustín Stahl concluded that there had been a "germ" in the land, but the problem was not defined until 1894, when Fernando López Tuero, an agronomy engineer at the Río Piedras Agronomy Station, identified the cause as the "white grub" or "caculo" (Phyllophaga).
Industrialization and Research
The first telegraph line, which was private, was inaugurated by Samuel Morse himself in 1859, from the port of Arroyo to the Enriqueta plantation located in the same municipality and owned by his son-in-law. The first public line, however, was run from San Juan to Arecibo in 1869 when the Spanish government authorized it. The first railroad trip (the steam-powered local train from San Juan to Río Piedras) was offered in 1880. The Central Highway (San Juan to Ponce), began in 1841, but was not completed until 1888. By the time of the change of sovereignty (1898), there were telephones on the island and electric lights in some towns. The first automobile arrived between 1901 and 1904.
The giants of public health research in the early 20th century were Isaac González Martínez (1871-1954) and Pedro Gutiérrez Igaravídez (1871-1935), first along with Dr. Bailey K. Ashford (1873-1934) and later independently. Ashford and Gutiérrez, among others, started the efforts that led to the Anemia Commissions in the first decade of the 20th century and the Institute of Tropical Medicine in the second decade. Ashford urged the creation of the School of Tropical Medicine, which was in operation from 1926 to 1949. These three agencies conducted extraordinary work in clinical, epidemiological and bio-chemical research in Puerto Rico. González Martínez, the most outstanding bacteriologist on the island, transformed himself after 1926 to become a pioneer in the treatment and prevention of cancer.
From 1914 to 1924, various entities in the United States sponsored the Scientific Survey of Porto Rico and the Virgin Islands under the direction of Nathaniel L. Britton, a scholar of the island's geology, botany, zoology and ecology. Although the government established a chemistry laboratory in 1902 to investigate legal cases and water quality, and the UPR School of Pharmacy was founded in 1913, it was the sugar industry that was the main source of work for Puerto Rican chemists in the early years of the 20th century.
In 1931 the Puerto Rico Association of Chemists was organized and a law passed in May of 1941 established its accreditation authority. The Society of Engineers was founded in 1904 and compulsory membership (along with architects and surveyors) dates to 1938. By contrast, the Puerto Rico Medical Association was established in 1902 and definitive accreditation status did not occur until 1994.
For those born around 1900, a college education was a more accessible option than for previous generations, not only at the University of Puerto Rico (founded in 1903) or at the Mayagüez College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (1911), but also in the United States. Among those new students, four scientists stand out as examples. Carlos Chardón (1897-1965) made the first major scientific advance of his generation by identifying the transmitting agent of a viral disease that affected sugar cane and was known as "mosaic." (The name referred to the yellow stains that appeared on the leaves of the sick plants.) Marta Robert (1890-1986), through her untiring work in educating midwives, was able to reduce the mortality of neo-natal tetanus by 80% in four years (1931-1935).
Eduardo Garrido Morales (1898-1953) was the first modern epidemiologist in Puerto Rico. Because of his rigorous and original research on epidemics, he is considered an innovator in the then-incipient epidemiological methods. Ramón M. Suárez (1895-1981) was a prolific clinical researcher whose most important contributions were the identification of an effective treatment for celiac disease (published in the prestigious journals Science and Blood), the use of complex methods such as electrocardiographs and radioisotopes in clinical studies, and the identification and better definition of clinical entities that were not well recognized in Puerto Rico, such as rheumatic heart disease.
The work of scientific researchers on the problems in Puerto Rico, despite being included in the Bibliografía Puertorriqueña by Antonio S. Pedreira (1932), was not reflected in the main socio-historical analyses published in the 1930s: Insularismo by Antonio S. Pedreira (1934), Prontuario histórico de Puerto Rico by Tomás Blanco (1935) and Problemas de la cultura puertorriqueña by Emilio S. Belaval (1935). By excluding public health and the efforts to improve it from their analysis, they seriously limited the validity of their interpretations, with respect to both the causes of the problems and the potential for resolving them.
Development of scientific research centers in the 20th century
During the first decades of the 20th century, there were three scientific research centers on the island: the University of Puerto Rico (in its School of Arts and Sciences and its Experimental Agriculture Station), the Department of Health and the School of Tropical Medicine. World War II, the industrialization of the island, the proliferation of universities and funds from the United States government to support research made this work an indispensable part of educational and industrial activities in the second half of the 20th century.
In the 1940s, the Economic Development Industrial Laboratory was founded; in the 1950s, the Nuclear Center; in the 1960s, graduate programs in sciences began at the Mayagüez and Río Piedras campuses of the UPR and the Medical Sciences Campus (RCM-UPR, for its acronym in Spanish) was established; and in the 1970s the Nuclear Center was reorganized as the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies.
Research in PR in the late 20th century
In the mid-1980s, funds from the National Institutes of Health were used to establish support programs and infrastructure for researchers, called "Minority Biomedical Research Support" and "Research Centers for Minority Institutions," at the RCM (and later at other universities). Shortly thereafter, funds became available for AIDS research, which has yielded many benefits. This qualitative and quantitative explosion of work has been examined in public forums and governmental reports, but its history has not yet been written.
An evaluation of the scientific work in Puerto Rico from 1990 to 1998 (which probably reflects studies conducted between 1985 and 1995) suggests that the production of scientific articles was concentrated in the academic sector (UPR Río Piedras, Mayagüez and Medical Sciences), and in the topics of medicine, chemistry, biology and physics. The amount of work in the period was greater than that of any other country in the Caribbean and was sixth in Latin America, the articles were published in high-visibility journals, and there was a high level of cooperation between local and international authors and institutions.
The research done in the first half of the 20th century made possible the economic and political changes that took place and successfully met the vital needs of the population, resulting in a the dramatic increase in life expectancy that occurred between 1940 and 1950. With respect to the research in the second half of the century, its range, originality, executors, sources of resources, institutional environment and impact on the lives of Puerto Ricans remains to be seen.
Autor: José G. Rigau Pérez MD, MPH
Published: May 06, 2010.