Where it all began

Reform of the University of Coimbra educated the first Brazilian researchers

One of the justifications for the fact that is took Brazil almost 500 years to have any considerable scientific production is the scant attention and low investment offered for education since the days of colonization. This does not mean that good quality science was not carried out in the past. Contrary to other countries with a colonial heritage, the first to carry out research over here were Brazilians – or in the colonizing vision of those times, Portuguese born in Brazil. The “reform of education” carried out by the Marquis of Pombal in 1772 was responsible for instituting the teaching of the natural sciences at the University of Coimbra.

“In the 20 years following the reform, about 430 Brazilians were educated in sciences at Coimbra, and among them are the first ones, who – returning to Brazil – began here their studies of the flora, the fauna, the minerals and the primitive peoples”, says Evando Mirra de Paula e Silva, president of the Center for Management and Strategic Studies, of the Ministry of Science and Technology, in his study Science in Brazilian Cultural Education. On their return to Brazil, for example, Francisco José de Lacerda e Almeida, an astronomer and geographer from São Paulo, graduated from Coimbra in 1776, and Antônio Pires da Silva Pontes, from Minas Gerais, who took his degree there in 1777, got together to determine the position of the rivers and other geographical accidents of the then captaincies of Rio Negro, Cuiabá and Mato Grosso. A native of Bahia, Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira, in turn, already had his ability recognized at the Portuguese university as a professor.

But it was his work over the center and northeast of the country as an explorer, doctor and naturalist, geographer and ethnographer, between 1783 and 1793, that turned him into one of the main points of reference of the colonial period. His report inViagem Filosófica (Philosophical Journey) and the watercolors produced by draftsmen from his team produced some of the first images of the distant corners of Brazil and importantinformation about zoology, botany and native populations. Doctor and naturalist from Minas Gerais, José Vieira do Couto, explored the mining region and published theMemory about the Captaincy of Minas Gerais, Its Territory, Climate and Productions of Metal , in 1798. Martin Francisco Ribeiro de Andrada, from São Paulo, made similar explorations in São Paulo, the most famous of them in the company of his brother José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, a scientist of international caliber and a member ofthe main scientific societies in Europe, and certainly the greatest exponent amongst the generation of Brazilians that studied at Coimbra. “Such was his prestige that thePortuguese university founded for him the chair of Metallurgy”, says Evando Mirra.

An encyclopedist, with a knowledge of 11 languages and a mastery, besides metallurgy, of the areas of mineralogy, geology, chemistry, climatology, botany, silviculture, hydraulics and public works. When he returned to Brazil, in 1819, he undertook an expedition with his brother and published the report which became a classic: Economic-metallurgical Digression through the Hills and Fields of the Hinterland of the Beautiful and Wild Province of São Paulo. After this work, he plunged into politics. He was Minister for Home and Foreign Affairs and followed the course that was laterto make him known, in the future, more as the “Patriarch of Independence” than as a scientist.

All these Brazilians and many others, students from Coimbra, benefited from the reforms put into effect by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello, the Marquis of Pombal, a minister of Dom José I from 1750 to 1777. Pombal issued decrees, warrants and laws that changed the economy, the education, the society, and even the way of looking at religion in Portugal in the 18th century. With the help of the Inquisition, the Company of Jesus, the Jesuits dominated like sovereigns teaching at all levels, ignoring the discoveries that had burst forth with the Renaissance. Copernicus, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Galileo Galilei to Isaac Newton, John Locke, Gottfried Leibnitz, Buffon and Montesquieu – nothing escaped the scrutiny of the Company of Jesus. But it had not always been like that. The Church had almost always been the last asylumfor intelligence, culture and science, during the periods in which the European states were immersed in medieval obscurantism. In Portugal, the Jesuits held the power of decision over what was taught and what was good or bad for the population.

To turn this picture around and to act with liberty, Pombal expelled the Company of Jesus from Portugal and its colonies in 1759. When he decided to reform teaching, he instituted the Literary Providence Board, in 1770, which he presided. On August 28 1772, King José I ratified the new statutes of the University of Coimbra. In that same year, the university museum, the botanical gardens, the office for experimental physics and the practical chemistry laboratory, hitherto non-existent, were created. As the country did not have enough teachers with a mastery of the natural sciences, he opted for fetching them from Italy.

Later on, when the reform had already crystallized, the university started to make use of its own staff. And this was the period, in the last decades of the 18th century, when some Brazilians also became teachers at Coimbra and no longer just learners.