Science and Environment

Rizal, the scientist

Jose P. Rizal was a man of many talents and interests. For a man who lived only 35 years, his achievements are remarkable and numerous. The Rizal Centennial Commission listed 278 written works of Rizal, including his two major novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

Although Rizal is well-known for his literary prowess, perhaps his accomplishments as a scientist are not well publicized. At this age where science and technology play a major role in economic development, his scientific achievements are relevant and inspiring. To talk about Rizal as a scientist, it is difficult to separate Rizal the natural scientist (one who practiced the natural sciences) from Rizal the social scientist and political reformer because he believed that knowledge should be used for enlightenment and liberation and not for oppression. In his choice of medicine as a career and during his education in Europe, he never lost sight of his goal: to serve his people and liberate them from years of oppression and injustice by the Spaniards.

Here are some highlights of Rizal’s scientific accomplishments.

After five years in Europe, he went home to the Philippines in 1887. He operated on his mother’s eyes to remove her cataracts – the surgery was successful and was the first of its kind ever done in the Philippines. His fame as an eye doctor spread quickly and people began coming to him for treatment from all over the Philippines and even from as far away as China. He opened a clinic, sent away for equipment, charged moderate fees and treated the poor free.

After only six months, Rizal had to leave the country because his novel Noli Me Tangere had circulated and the friars were out to get him. He went back to Europe via Japan and the US. Here again, Rizal made some perceptive observations of the US then. After 15 days crossing the Pacific, their ship was quarantined in San Francisco for a week although none of the passengers were sick and health clearance had been given. The authorities cited smallpox as a risk. He noted that there were a number of Chinese immigrants, the cargo silk had been unloaded without fumigation and the customs officers were not afraid to eat aboard. Rizal discovered the real reason for the quarantine. He wrote: "America was opposed to Chinese immigration and since it was election time, the administration appeared strict to the Chinese to obtain the people’s votes."

He took the train across the US and made a number of stops along the way. He wrote about his impressions of the US: "Undoubtedly America is a great country but it still has many defects. There is no real civil liberty. In some states the Negro cannot intermarry. Because of the hatred toward the Chinese, other Asians like the Japanese, being confused with them are likewise disliked by the ignorant Americans."

In London, he undertook a project that he had wanted to do. As a boy, one of his uncles told him about a book written in the 16th century by a Spaniard that gave a truthful picture about early Philippine history. All accounts he had read thus far were written by prejudiced Spaniards seeking to justify Spain’s colonial rule on the ground that the natives were "child-like savages." The book Sucesos de las Islas Pilipinas written by Antonio de Morga and published in Mexico in 1609 was available only in a few libraries, and a copy was in the British Museum in London! His plan was simple. He would study Morga and other writers who dealt with pre-Spanish Philippine history, compare them all and publish a new edition of Morga, with notes and comments by himself. Thus the truth about the Philippines would become available to his people and the Europeans who had learned about the early Filipinos through the prejudiced eyes of the Spanish colonizers.

Going through Morga’s volumes, Rizal found that the Filipino people had been historically wronged. In the coastal regions where most of the islanders lived, their arts, industries and energy had been at a high level when the Spaniards arrived. Morga described their skills in weaving, in metal work, in agriculture, in commerce, in navigation, in government, their fine ships (better than Spain’s), their busy marketplaces. It was a civilization that Rizal and the Filipino people could be proud of. More, it cut away the basis for Spain’s claim to colonial rule. Rizal wanted to give the Filipino people back their past for he believed that a people without a proper understanding of their past was a people without a future.

The last major episode of his life was spent in exile in Dapitan, in northern Mindanao, where he was sent by Spanish authorities after he returned to the Philippines in 1892. As one author wrote, it was one of the most extraordinary exiles in human history. In Dapitan, there was no water system, no school, no street lighting, no hospital, the land was fertile but farming techniques were primitive. But Rizal with his characteristic creativity and self-discipline, tackled these problems. In his four years in Dapitan:

He established a large and well-known medical practice where his patients came from all over the Philippines and from Hong Kong and other Asian cities.

He built a hospital.

He built a small house for himself and a large one for his family and visiting friends.

He bought lands and practiced scientific farming.

He set up a water supply system based on gravity.

He set up and taught a school for local children.

He paid for the first street lighting system.

He beautified the town plaza and made a giant relief map of the Philippines which is still preserved today.

He obtained from Kalamba an improved type of fishing net that helped the Dapitan fishermen improve their catch.

He imported farm machinery from the US for himself and local farmers.

He subscribed to the magazine Scientific American and ordered medicines and pharmaceuticals from the US.

He collaborated with foremost scientists from Europe at that time. With his students, he collected specimens of plants, animals and ethnographic materials from Mindanao and sent them to his colleagues in Europe.

Some of the animal specimens were rare and named after him: A new species of frog named Rhacophorus rizali, a new species of beetle named Apogonia rizali, and a new species of lizard named Draconi rizali.

In Dapitan, as everywhere he stayed, Rizal followed a disciplined schedule. He had a brilliant mind, but the key to his productivity was planning and self-disciplined execution. He wrote to his Austrian friend Blumentritt how he spent a typical day in Dapitan: "I get up early at 5:00, visit my fields, feed the chickens, I wake up my people and start them moving. At 7:30 we take breakfast. Afterwards I treat my poor patients who come to my land. Then I dress up and go to town to treat the people there and return at 12 noon for lunch. Afterwards I teach the boys until 4:00 and I spend the afternoon farming. Evenings are used for studying and reading."

Finally, Rizal shared with us his philosophy and thinking about education and science. Within the limits of the circumstances in Dapitan, Rizal gave his students the key elements of his educational goals: academic knowledge, industrial training, ethical instruction, and physical development. He believed that moral values were as important as knowledge itself; indeed, they were the only assurance that knowledge will be used to help and enlighten, rather than oppress men.

Einstein echoed similar ideas when he addressed the students at California Institute of Technology: "Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interests of all technical endeavors – in order that the creation of our mind will be a blessing and not a curse to mankind."

P.S. I have used a number of books and other publications at the UC Berkeley library for this write-up. I would be happy to share these titles with anyone who wants to do further research on Rizal, the scientist. One of the few remaining original copies of Sucesos de las Islas de las Filipinas by A. Morga annotated by Rizal is at the rare book collection of UC Berkeley Bancroft library.
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Ben O. de Lumen, Ph.D., is a professor at the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, University of California at Berkeley, CA. He is a member of the Philippine Academy of Science and Engineering. E-mail him at [email protected]

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