Laboratory in the forest

Theodoro Peckolt was a pioneer in the chemical analysis of Brazilian flora in the 19th century

Family ArchiveFlora brasiliensis, 15 volumes about the plants of Brazil, researched, edited and published between 1840 and 1906, is celebrated as the main reference work about the diversity of plants in the country. The work was led by German botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794-1868) in the first half of the 19th century, and had a participation from other foreign explorers and naturalists. One of the most important, the German pharmacist Theodoro Peckolt (1822-1912), was induced by Martius to go to Rio de Janeiro to study the tropical flora and to send plants to him, in exchange for 50 milreis a month, and seeds for the botanical gardens of Berlin and Munich. There began the successful but little known career of a pioneer in phytochemistry in the country – the first to do a systematic chemical study of Brazilian flora.

Peckolt landed in Rio in 1847, at the age of 25. In the 65 years he lived in the country, the naturalist and pharmacist wrote 173 articles, most published in scientific periodicals from Germany, and three books.
A researcher from the Chemistry Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Nadja Paraense dos Santos, identified about 3 thousand plants – almost all from the Atlantic Rain Forest – about which Peckolt published data on morphology and botany and their pharmaceutical and nutritional uses. Of these, he chemically analyzed about 285. “In the majority of cases, Peckolt was very rigorous in the analysis of leaves, flowers and bark, which he did separately, and each analysis published corresponded to an average of three tests carried out”, says Nadja, who defended a doctoral thesis on the scientific contribution from the German. “There is probably no other researcher who produced so many chemical analyses of the Brazilian flora of the 19th century.”

“Peckolt can also be considered one of the precursors of ethnopharmacology.” The naturalist regarded it important to systematize and to study the popular traditions for the use of medicinal plants as a strategy for investigating and proving their therapeutic properties. Whenever possible, he would give the scientific and popular names, and the name used by the Indians. Peckolt lived for 17 years between Cantagalo and Friburgo, in the interior of the state of Rio de Janeiro. He studied the flora of the Atlantic Rain Forest in the provinces of Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. Afterwards, he moved to Rio, where he had one more of his various pharmacies. He never went back to Germany and called himself Brazilian. “He would only complain that his discoveries relating to the medicinal use of the plants were very little used by the population”, Nadja says.