General Antonio Luna: Scientist, soldier and revolutionary
STAR SCIENCE - Benjamin Vallejo Jr., Ph.D. () - August 12, 2010 - 12:00am

Filipinos remember General Antonio Luna as a brilliant, brave soldier and tactician of the second phase of the Revolution and the proverbial hothead but never as the excellent scientist. This is largely due to how historians over the years told the story of the hero. The historian and chair of the National Historical Institute Ambeth Ocampo notes that Luna was a dandy based on his personal possessions and the contents of his traveling bags. But Ocampo also takes note of the fact that Luna took copious notes when he was a student and when he was what we would call today a postdoctoral researcher.

Ocampo was able to look into the personal papers and laboratory notebooks of General Luna in New York which belonged to Grace Luna, the wife of esteemed architect Andres Luna who was the son of the artist Juan Luna and nephew of the General. Ocampo, who was not a scientist, was impressed by the detail of scientific observation and drawing in the notebooks. The definitive biography of Antonio Luna was penned by Dr. Vivencio Jose, a history professor from the University of the Philippines. This is the main reference for this essay which focuses on Luna’s career as an excellent scientist.

Antonio Luna is alone among the heroes of the Propaganda and revolutionary movement who was a trained professional scientist. Luna was born on Oct. 29, 1866 in Binondo, Manila’s commercial district then and as it is now. At an early age, he showed aptitude in science, especially chemistry. This was not lost to his Jesuit mentors at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila. At the University of Santo Tomas, he studied chemistry and literature where he won first prize for the science essay “Dos Cuerpos Fundamentales de la Quimica.” It was during his student days at Santo Tomas where he studied marksmanship, military sciences and tactics under a Spanish Calvary officer. He also studied music. In 1886 he left for Madrid to complete a licentiate and later doctorate in Pharmacy in 1890. His doctoral thesis “El Hematozoario del Paludismo” was published in 1893 and was well received by medical scientists and physicians.

He was conferred the doctorate in 1890 by the Complutense to highest praises by his examiners. Not contended with the doctorate, he proceeded to Paris to work in the Pasteur Institute where he did research in histology and bacteriology under Professor Latteaux and to Belgium where he trained in medical analysis (medical chemistry) under Professor Laffons. Luna contributed to the leading Pharmacy scientific journals of the day.

Luna returned to Manila in 1894 with a commission (research grant) from the Spanish government to study the bacteriology of contagious diseases. Later that year, he took the examination for Chemist Expert of the Municipal Laboratory of Manila. He got high ratings and won the post. He did what is the first environmental science research in the Philippines which included the bacteriological studies of Pasig River water (which he found unfit for drinking), the therapeutic and chemical properties of Sibul Spring water and the first study on Philippine forensic science, where he did a study on using human blood as evidence in judicial proceedings. This was on top of routine studies on food and water chemistry as required by health authorities.

Luna’s scientific and political activities in Europe and his friendship with leading personalities of the Propaganda made him a marked man at the start of the 1896 Revolution. He was linked with the Katipunan. For this he was arrested together with his famous artist-brother. Like Rizal, Luna initially did not believe that the Filipino people were prepared enough to start a revolution. Luna was imprisoned at Fort Santiago and was sent to exile and imprisonment in Spain. He was released upon condition that he remained in Spain. His career as a scientist was over and that of a brilliant military tactician began. It was during this time that he decided to join the Revolution but unlike other revolutionists, he used his scientist’s mind in studying and researching on military science, tactics, field fortifications, battalion tactics, national defense and organization in preparation for fighting in the Revolution. Before leaving Europe he wrote, “I am going not to command, but to obey. With my limited knowledge, I will struggle like the common soldier for the liberty of my Motherland.” But that was not meant to be. He had to command.

In July 1898 he returned to the Philippines and saw action against the American invaders. A disciplinarian, he was not beloved by his troops. He fell victim to factionalism in the Republic and was assassinated in Cabanatuan by Filipino soldiers on June 5, 1899. He was just 32. 

General Antonio Luna has no epitaph but perhaps his words before leaving exile in Europe for Manila are apt: “I will fight and offer my life, my small knowledge and science for the liberation of the Motherland.”

Science cannot prosper in a nation that is not free.

While the University of the Philippines has honored General Luna’s bravery and military exploits with a parade ground in his name, perhaps one of the buildings of the National Science Complex can be named in his honor in recognition of his internationally recognized scientific work in the pharmaceutical and environmental sciences.

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Benjamin Vallejo Jr. is an assistant professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology, College of Science, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City. He is a biogeographer whose interests range from urban to marine environments and how these respond to environment change. E-mail him at

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