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Therapies for the tropics

Book by a Portuguese barber-surgeon describes the cures used in 18th century Minas Gerais

Il farmacista, Pietro LonghiIn 1735, the Officina de Miguel Rodrigues in Lisbon published the first edition of the book Erário mineral (“Mineral treasury”), describing the medical practices employed in the capitania (now state) of Minas Gerais – the epicenter of the Colonial Brazilian gold rush. The author of the work, described as one of the first treatises on Brazilian or tropical medicine written in Portuguese, was the barber surgeon Luís Gomes Ferreira. A Portuguese native from the Douro region, Gomes Ferreira had pursued his profession in both Portugal and India, and had lived for three years in Salvador before settling down near the city of Ouro Preto, then known as Vila Rica.

When he moved to that part of the colony in 1710, Gomes Ferreira’s intent was to make his fortune in mining. But upon realizing that prospecting for gold would not bring much of a profit, he decided to ply a parallel trade by applying the curative arts he had learned in Portugal. After all, there were few physicians or barber surgeons in the region, and caring for the sick could potentially be advantageous. He became famous for his cures, relocated time and again in search of new opportunities, and did not leave Minas Gerais until 1731, when he crossed the Atlantic to return to his homeland.

The information in the book was based on the accumulated experience of two decades spent treating powerful slave masters and their infirm captives in a land distant and distinct from Portugal. Upon returning to his native country, Gomes Ferreira wrote the Erário mineral in less than a year. In the book, he describes the main woes that afflicted the local denizens, especially the slaves, and the treatments he deployed to fight these sicknesses. He believed that the capitania‘s cold, wet climate was to blame for nearly every ailment. Diet, housing conditions, and the fact that mining forced slaves to spend many hours in the water or underground were additional factors he associated with disease.

As the prevalent living conditions and health troubles in Minas Gerais were different from those in Europe, the barber-surgeon had to adapt to the new reality. “Gomes Ferreira had greater freedom and sensibility to absorb knowledge from other sources than European medicine,” says historian Júnia Ferreira Furtado from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), who coordinated the 2002 publication of a new edition of the book, with support from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) and the Minas Gerais Research Foundation (Fapemig).

Retablo de los santos Abdón y Senén / Jaime HuguetPerforming surgeries, including amputations, was one of the barber- surgeon’s tasksRetablo de los santos Abdón y Senén / Jaime Huguet

For that reason, the book includes many of the remedies used by indigenous peoples and added to the repertoire of colonial Brazilian medicine by the inhabitants of São Paulo. Prescriptions that included bones, fats, whole animals or parts of them, saliva, urine, and many regional plants are present in the book’s pages. “Erário mineral is no exception to the rule: when it comes to healing, anything goes,” asserts Ronaldo Simões Coelho in a text published with the Fiocruz/Fapemig-sponsored version of the barber-surgeon’s book, where Coelho reminds us that this has always been the attitude of those devoted to medicine.

In the 18th century, book writing was not common among barber- surgeons, whose knowledge was based on medical practice. Theorizing and writing about healing was a task left to physicians who had received a theoretical, scholastic education, still modeled on Greek medicine and the theory of humorism. Nor was it a prerogative of barber-surgeons to prescribe medications and/or formulate them, like an apothecary. Yet Gomes Ferreira, who owned an apothecary shop, did all that in the hinterlands of Minas Gerais.

The first edition of Erário mineral, published in the first half of the 18th century, is freely available on the Google Books website. Searching for the book’s title is all it takes to access the work in digital form. The 2002 edition – which, in addition to the original text, brings articles from scholars commenting on the book – can also be accessed on the Internet, more precisely through the Scielo website. Júnia Ferreira Furtado is planning to release a new edition of Erário mineral, to which she will add 50 new pages written by Gomes Ferreira for a 1750s edition of the book.