Paul Klein: Forgotten Philippines scientist and writer
(The Philippine Star) - January 4, 2018 - 12:00am

A few weeks ago Fr. Primitivo E. Viray Jr. became the new Provincial of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines, the 12th since the Jesuits returned to the country after their expulsion in 1768. His appointment took place exactly 300 years after the death of one of his glorious – though forgotten - predecessors, Fr. Paul Klein, who was heading the Province from 1708 until 1710.

The two centuries long story of Jesuit missionary work during that period is often viewed as a Spanish endeavour. But looking into it more closely, it was a multinational action of missionaries from over 20 nations, including two dozens coming from Bohemia, today known as the Czech Republic. Majority of the Czechs were evangelizing the Visayas and two of them, having exceptional talent in the sciences, spent their life working in Manila. Georg Kamel (also known as Camel, 1661-1706), native from the city of Brno, became a prime botanist. His works focused on the Philippine flora and fauna have survived the test of time, and notably the flower, Camellia – never seen by him – was named after him a century after his death.

However, through the ages, other noted individuals became part of the forgotten parts of history. One of them is Paul Klein. Born on Jan. 25, 1652 he arrived in Manila in 1682 after a troublesome four-year long voyage from Central Europe. He worked in the Philippines for 35 years until his death on Aug. 30, 1717. Highly intelligent, curious and avid to share his experiences, Klein became a man with various interests: a unique polymath, linguist, translator and writer as well as a botanist and a pharmacist.

Klein excelled in many things, one of these were languages. He was the first Jesuit who worked on a Tagalog dictionary (Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala published in 1754) when this task was passed to the Jesuits by the Dominicans. As he was a skilled Tagalog speaker he enriched the dictionary with introduction of local proverbs and sayings. Klein‘s interest in Philippine languages was sparked by his diverse linguistic skills: being a native speaker of Czech and German, his fluency in Italian and Spanish, and his excellent stylist in Latin, as seen in his letters. Learning Tagalog was thus a logical step for him, but as he traveled a lot, he also acquired some knowledge of Kapampangan, Visayan and Bikolano.

Being aware of his skills, Klein started translating and writing in Tagalog himself. Soon he became one of the first creators of missionary poetry. His poems are usually signed as Pablo Clain, the Hispanized version of his name, and remained unpublished though known to his contemporaries. He is repeatedly mentioned by them and two lines from one of his poems is quoted in the first anthology of a Tagalog verse edited by San Agustín in 1703. Unfortunately his poems are now lost, and the same happened to his book of Tagalog essays published in 1713 as Hell laid open to the Christian, that he may be advised not to enter therein as well as a Tagalog translation of Dominique Bohour´s Christian Thoughts published a year later.

At least a number of letters of Klein survived, and gave us a view of the avid writer ?– a man of many qualities and interests. He was not only a polyglot but also a polymath well-versed in various sciences. In one of his early letters written upon his arrival in Manila, he was asking his friends in Europe to send him astronomical devices which he used to write a scientific description of a Moon eclipse in Manila in 1686.

The beginning of his diverted interest towards the medicinal use of native plants is unknown, though perhaps might be attributed to Georg Kamel. Kamel’s influence and close collaboration with Klein can explain his association to the field of herbal medicine. Kamel established the pharmacy and created the first botanical garden in Manila. Kamel´s botanical research undoubtedly became an inspiration for Klein, thus after Kamel´s death in 1706, Klein followed the footsteps of his Czech compatriot.

Klein – as well as Kamel – went beyond the usual limits required for the Jesuit missionaries of their times, for they both understood that scientific research is something of high importance in promoting Christian values. Klein has published his most important book, a manual of medicine, Easy Remedies for Different Illnesses. Though printed by the University of Santo Tomás only in 1712, manuscript copies were already circulating around the islands at least four years earlier. Upon publication, it was the first book available in the Philippines with an aim “to assist Ministers evangelizing the natives“ in the medical field. The extent of its use stretched for generations to come, as it was once more reprinted in 1852 and used in medical practice well until the late 19th century.

Easy Remedies is now one of rare books printed in Manila, with copies in only three libraries, in Madrid, Paris, and another in the Czech city of Olomouc.

As much as Klein´s books fell into obscurity, his role in the history of medicine in the Philippines fade through time as well – the same way he was largely forgotten as an important writer and translator. Nevertheless, Paul Klein, a deeply religious and pious missionary who cared about others, a unique intellectual of his time that crusade more than what is asked should be re-discovered by Filipinos. Philippine historians  will no doubt learn a lot from his works, and will find that Klein deserves his place in history of Philippine literature and science.

(Jaroslav Olša Jr. is Czech Ambassador to the Philippines and author of books on history and literature.)

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