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Magnificent botanist

João Barbosa Rodrigues published his classic book on the palm tree 110 years ago

João Barbosa Rodrigues in his office at the Botanical Garden (undated): recognized in his lifetime

COLLECTION OF THE ENVIRONMENT MUSEUM / JBRJJoão Barbosa Rodrigues in his office at the Botanical Garden (undated): recognized in his lifetimeCOLLECTION OF THE ENVIRONMENT MUSEUM / JBRJ

In 1903 João Barbosa Rodrigues published Sertum palmarum brasiliensium, a classic work on the botany of Brazil, under the best possible conditions. It was printed in two volumes in Brussels, Belgium, using the most up-to-date graphic techniques. Financed by the Brazilian government, the book brings together 174 watercolors and the author’s texts in Latin and French with the description of 389 species of palm (42 genera)—166 of them new to science. Rodrigues was 61 years old and director of the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden and personally supervised the printing. The book’s publication was the crowning achievement of a career marked by controversy and lack of recognition by other botanists.

João Barbosa Rodrigues (1842-1909) was born in Rio de Janeiro, and spent his childhood in the state of Minas Gerais. He returned to Rio to continue his studies, and he met Guilherme Schüch, the Baron of Capanema, who was also an amateur botanist and would become a mentor, admirer and patron of Rodrigues. In 1870, Rodrigues surprised Rio’s small scientific community by seeking money from the imperial government to publish a book with drawings and descriptions of orchids. It was astonishing because up until that time he had been teaching drawing at the Colegio Pedro II, without ever participating in the city’s small circle of scientists. The request led to a discussion in the press about his actual competence in the area. Ladislau Netto, a National Museum botanist, was one who openly criticized Rodrigues.

Examples of palm trees drawn by João Barbosa Rodrigues in 1873 while in the Amazon: Oenocarpus distichus Mart.

SERTUM PALMARUM BRASILIENSIUM / SENATE LIBRARY Examples of palm trees drawn by João Barbosa Rodrigues in 1873 while in the Amazon: Oenocarpus distichus MartSERTUM PALMARUM BRASILIENSIUM / SENATE LIBRARY

In the end, the book about orchids was not published that year. But Rodrigues was ultimately chosen to explore the Amazon River valley in 1872, thanks to Capanema’s sponsorship. The aim was to describe the species of the genus Palmarum and correct some studies that Carl Friedrich von Martius had done on the plant in the early 19th century. “For the first time, the Brazilian government financed the trip of a Brazilian naturalist for the sole purpose of doing a taxonomic survey of a specific botanical group,” says Magali Romero Sá, a science historian at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation’s Casa de Oswaldo Cruz, and the author of studies on Rodrigues.

Rodrigues spent three and a half years in the region. He drew and described orchids and palm trees, made ethnographic notes on the population and wrote about the use of local flora in medicine, food and housing. He also collected geological and archaeological material and studied the preparation of curare, a poison used by the indigenous people.

He returned to Rio de Janeiro, unemployed, but was hired by Capanema to manage an insecticide factory in Rodeio, in inland Rio de Janeiro State. He still continued his research on orchids. Some of his illustrations were copied and included in a monograph by von Martius entitled Orquidáceas da monumental flora brasiliensis, with Rodrigues’s permission. It was not until 1996 that his Iconograhie des orchidées du Brésil was published in Switzerland in Portuguese, English, French and German.

João Barbosa Rodrigues always put the image in context by using a native plant as reference: Oenocarpus bataua in detail, which bears edible fruit and provides high quality oil

SERTUM PALMARUM BRASILIENSIUM / SENATE LIBRARY João Barbosa Rodrigues always put the image in context by using a native plant as reference: Oenocarpus bataua in detail, which bears edible fruit and provides high quality oilSERTUM PALMARUM BRASILIENSIUM / SENATE LIBRARY

In 1882 the Botanical Museum of the Amazon was created, and he was appointed its director, again at the request of Capanema. When the museum closed in 1890, he became director of Rio’s Botanical Garden, where he remained until his death. Rodrigues completely restructured the institution: he boosted scientific research, built a herbarium and library, and reorganized the greenhouses and nurseries. He also created the position of traveling naturalist and increased exchanges with other scientific institutions.

“Despite all his talents, some criticism of him by other scientists was justified,” says Sá. Before announcing the discovery of a particular species, it had to be compared to available collections, but Brazil had no collections for comparative purposes at the time and many of the species Rodrigues described had been identified earlier. To Sá, this omission does not diminish his scientific work as a botanist, illustrator and manager. “He was shrewd and knew how to copy the best from institutions abroad for the Botanical Garden,” Sá concludes.