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Pragmatic science

The first state laboratory for chemical analyses was established 200 years ago

Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal

The Count of Barca portrayed by Gregório Francisco de Queiroz (c. 1804)and the still at his laboratory: espionageBiblioteca Nacional de Portugal

King’s Letters, permissions, resolutions, decrees and laws were produced in series as soon as the Court of King John VI arrived to stay in Brazil in 1808. The orders were necessary to reorganize the Portuguese State, now installed in Brazil, and to administer the country without losing touch with the trade between Portugal and Africa and Asia. In a certain way, the new resolutions also provided a glimpse of a new way to produce science in a pragmatic manner, with official support. In 1812, a decree handed down on January 25 created the Chemical-Practical Laboratory of Rio de Janeiro, the objective of which was to analyze substances and products from the colonies that could be used in domestic and foreign trade. This was the first state laboratory that was not linked to the teaching of chemistry, as had been the case at the Military Academy since 1810.

The proposal came from João de Almeida Melo e Castro, Count of Galveas, who headed three ministries. The laboratory lasted for seven years – from 1812 to 1819, and was linked to the Ministry and Secretariat of State and Business of the Navy and Overseas Domains. This Ministry was headed by four ministers in that period. A Portuguese priest, Francisco Vieira Goulart ( 1765-1839) was appointed to run the laboratory. Goulart had been a professor of rational and moral philosophy and was a member of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences.

The chosen site for the lab was located in the neighborhood of Mata-Porcos (currently Largo do Estácio, square). The idea was to adopt the model of the chemical laboratory at the University of Coimbra and prepare prescription drugs and conduct chemical analyses – even although this objective was not successfully achieved. To set up the lab, a request containing a long list of materials was forwarded to the Laboratory of the Mint in Lisbon. However, things did not work out as planned. In addition to getting only some of the items on the referred list, all the glass vials were placed next to iron artifacts. Of the 91 items on the list that were sent to Rio de Janeiro, only 42 arrived undamaged, according to documents consulted by historian Márcia Ferraz, of the Simão Mathias Center for Studies on the History of Science at the Catholic University in São Paulo (Cesima/PUC-SP).

A manuscript supposedly authored by Francisco Goulart contains a report on the lab´s activities and on the conditions that led to its closing. Although the manuscript is unsigned, in some parts Goulart betrayed himself and wrote sentences in the first person. Until 2003, only the first part of the document was known to researchers. In 2003, Nadja Paraense dos Santos, a researcher enrolled in the Science of History, Techniques, and Epistemology post-graduate program of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), found the entire 196-page manuscript in the Archives of the Imperial Museum in the city of Petropolis, State of Rio de Janeiro.

flora von deutschland, de otto wilhelm thomé

Drawing of poppy flower, from Flora von Deutschand (1885), by Otto Thomé: extract for exportingflora von deutschland, de otto wilhelm thomé

Goulart reports that one of the first analyses carried out at the lab was an analysis of the Brazilwood (Caesalpinea echinata), the objective of which was to extract the starch used to prepare dye, that was then to be sold in China. The extract was prepared, but the Chinese decided to import a less expensive kind of wood from Siam (currently Thailand) and the project did not move forward. Goulart´s next project was to test poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum) to prepare an extract that would result in opium to be exported to Asia. However, the Count of Galveas, who had placed the order, died, and the project stopped. The laboratory also analyzed distilled sugar cane juice, wood for dyeing, and water. The results did not interest Goulart´s other bosses and Goulart was ordered to close down the laboratory.

“According to the manuscript, competition from a private laboratory was the reason for the state-owned laboratory´s lack of success. The private laboratory was owned by Antonio de Araújo de Azevedo, the Count of Barca. In 1814, the Count of Barca was appointed as minister at the Ministry to which Goulart reported,” says Nadja dos Santos. “Based on what we know, the count´s private laboratory had been established in 1808 with the objective of supplying medical drugs to the Army, the Royal Armada and overseas colonies,” says Márcia Ferraz. The Count of Barca was an illustrious person with multiple interests and a great influence in the Court. The visit by the French Mission – comprised of artists, artisans, and architects – to Brazil had allegedly been his suggestion.

In his manuscript, Goulart writes that he had gone to the private laboratory at the request of his first boss, the Count of Galveas, to observe how the distilled sugar cane juice was prepared. José Caetano de Barros, the director of the laboratory, hosted Goulart without realizing that Goulart was familiar with chemistry, and explained the entire process to Goulart. Nowadays, this would be referred to as industrial espionage.