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One man’s laboratory

Museum in the Amazon, established in 1883, propelled the scientific career of botanist João Barbosa Rodrigues



Barbosa Rodrigues in his office at the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden (undated)

Barbosa Rodrigues in his office at the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden (undated)

On June 18, 1883, amidst a desire to popularize science and stimulate learning about Brazil, the Amazon Botanical Museum was inaugurated in the city of Manaus. It was the first scientific institution in the then province of Amazonas. Created as a center specializing in ethnographic and botanical studies applied to medicine, this short-lived museum ceased activity in 1890, seven years after opening its doors to the public. Despite its brief existence, the institution served to nurture the professional aspirations of its director, botanist João Barbosa Rodrigues (1842-1909), an ambitious and controversial figure. In pursuit of stature and recognition from the Brazilian scientific community, Barbosa Rodrigues became involved in several disputes with scientists and directors at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro.

Barbosa Rodrigues was born in Rio, but spent his childhood in the state of Minas Gerais, where he began his studies in arts and sciences. He returned to the capital in 1850. At that time, he met Guilherme Schüch, the Baron of Capanema (1824-1908), who was a mining engineer with close ties to the royal family, and Capanema eventually became his mentor. In 1870, the botanist surprised the scientific community in Rio by seeking money from the imperial government to publish a book on orchids (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 210). It was astonishing because up until that time he had never participated in the city’s circle of scientists. The request led to discussions about his competence in that field and went unheeded.

Astrocaryum manoense: new species of palm tree described by the director of the Amazon Botanical Museum

Astrocaryum manoense: new species of palm tree described by the director of the Amazon Botanical Museum

The idea to open a museum in the Amazon came from Capanema, who wished to secure a prestigious position for his botanist friend. At the time, Barbosa Rodrigues had already taken part in several expeditions to the Brazilian North, where he drew and described orchids and palm trees, made ethnographic notes and wrote about the use of the local flora in medicine. He also collected archeological and geological material and studied curare, a poison made from a combination of several plants and used by the indigenous people. Years later, that substance helped justify the creation of the Botanical Museum. In his plan presented to the imperial government, Barbosa Rodrigues emphasized how much the museum—in other words, his own studies—would contribute to the advancement of research on curare.

The strategy worked, the museum was inaugurated and Barbosa Rodrigues became its director, despite resistance from local officials who did not support the creation of the museum. “Politicians in Amazonas Province regarded the botanist as a stranger in his own country,” says historian Maria Margaret Lopes of the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), who studied the museum with Magali Romero Sá, a historian with the Casa Oswaldo Cruz, at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz).

Specimen of Curarea toxicofera...

Specimen of Curarea toxicofera

Barbosa Rodrigues organized the museum into three sections: botany, chemistry and ethnography, in addition to a botanical garden for plant cultivation and exhibition. The first collection exhibited there displayed botanical and ethnographic specimens collected by the botanist himself on an expedition in the Amazon River Valley in 1872. One month after the museum opened, Barbosa Rodrigues organized a new expedition to the environs of the Jauaperi River in the present-day state of Roraima, where he collected objects and species for his institution.

The museum inaugurated the botanical garden in 1884, and the chemistry laboratory, with equipment imported from Paris, in 1886. Barbosa Rodrigues’ diligence, however, was not enough to transform this scientific undertaking into the modern research institution he had in mind. Although it continued to operate regularly until 1888, the museum changed addresses three times amidst a perpetual lack of funds, equipment and staff. With few people to do the work, Barbosa Rodrigues’ children, stepsons and even his wife contributed administrative support.

... and drawings of indigenous artifacts collected by Barbosa Rodrigues on an 1872 expedition in the Amazon River valley

… and drawings of indigenous artifacts collected by Barbosa Rodrigues on an 1872 expedition in the Amazon River valley

The period during which he headed this Amazonian institution was a very productive one for Barbosa Rodrigues. He “produced drawings of plants and ethnographic objects, catalogs for exhibitions and scientific articles,” says Margaret Lopes. Between 1886 and 1887, he made illustrations of at least 394 plants and 94 ethnographic objects.

“The research done during his years as director of the Botanical Museum were decisive in prompting the invitation he received in 1890 to assume the directorship of the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, firmly establishing his standing as a botanist in the national scientific community of the time,” Sá notes in an article containing her detailed analysis, published in the journal Museum History Journal. Barbosa Rodrigues took the position at the Rio Botanical Garden in 1892, holding the prestige of having been director of a museum in the heart of the Amazon forest.

He left the position of director of the Botanical Museum when he realized that the institution had no future. After his departure, part of the collection went to the Liceu Amazonense in Manaus and was later transferred to the National Institute for Research on the Amazon (INPA). Other specimens were sent to institutions in Germany, Italy and the United States.

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