Microbiology in the Andes: Ancient and Unexpected
Thanks to the investigations by the Ecuadorian physician and scientist, Dr. Byron Núñez Freile, I learned of a surprisingly high level of scientific development that took place long ago in a remote region of the world. Quito, the present-day capital of Ecuador, is nestled amidst the high Andes and was the northern capital of the Inca empire. It was conquered by the Spaniards in 1534. In this exceedingly distant land, Jesuits established a college within a year of their coming in the late 16th century. By 1622, they founded one of the oldest universities in the Americas, the Universidad de San Gregorio Magno. This was earlier than the founding of Harvard, which happened in 1642. With the passing years, the two universities may not have enjoyed a parallel development, but early on they were likely of comparable quality. Soon, San Gregorio became a major institution, with a most impressive library of 16,000 volumes, the largest in South America at the time. In its first thirty years of existence, the university granted 160 masters degrees and 120 doctorates, mostly in philosophy and theology. Nevertheless, the library holdings also included numerous scientific and medical treatises.
Panorama of Quito. Source.
Quito can be reached by an easy flight these days, but in olden days getting to its lofty location (an altitude of 9,000 feet) required a week-long mule trek from the Pacific coast. Remote indeed! A major event of scientific relevance took place in 1736, when a geodetic French mission led by Charles-Marie La Condamine arrived, intent on measuring the circumference of the Earth at the equator. The French delegation interacted closely with members of the university, which resulted in a strong scientific legacy.
The scientific concerns of the times included the world we now call microbiology. No wonder. In 1589 a smallpox epidemic killed 37.5% of Quito’s inhabitants. A description of the disease in a letter by one of the priests makes clear allusion to its contagiousness. Later on, several of the Jesuits made insightful observations about the etiology of infectious diseases. Among them was Juan Magnin (1701-1753), a Swiss missionary who became a member of the French Academy of Sciences, who stated: There are microbes that can only be seen with a microscope that are 27 million times smaller than the smallest that can be seen with the naked eye. These facts and others seem incredible.
A microscope such as was available in Quito
in the 18th century, this one made ca. 1745
by John Cuff in London. Source.
And …(the microscope) allows to establish that the dirt on the teeth is due to the accumulation of innumerable microbes; furthermore, it is likely that many of the diseases of the human body, especially leprosy and venereal diseases, are due to the accumulation of microbes.
The other major microbiological issue of those times, the theory of spontaneous generation, became the concern of a native-born member of the faculty, Juan Bautista Aguirre (1725-1786). He wrote: I affirm…that the forms of animals, even insects, are not engendered by putrefactions but they arise from eggs or germs. He also stated: …with the aid of the microscope one discovers innumerable germs incredibly small in size, in the air, water, vinegar, blood, milk, etc. The most ingenious Leuvoiseck (sic) bore witness to having seen such small germs in a drop of water that 90,000 of them did not reach the size of a grain of wheat. What he lacked in spelling skills, he made up for by a good understanding of the literature!
Eugenio Espejo (1747-1795). Source.
There is more to this history. Soon after the Jesuits were expelled in 1767, the major Ecuadorian intellectual of that age, Eugenio Espejo (1747-1795), made important contributions to hygiene and the containment of smallpox. His words: Within the infinite variety of these living particles (“atomillos”) we have an admirable resource to explain the prodigious multitude of diseases and symptoms… Born of an Indian father and a mestizo mother, Espejo was a notable polymath, a true product of the Enlightenment. Not only was he the most notable physician of his time in Quito, he was also a lawyer, a philosopher, and the founder of Quito’s first newspaper. As a public figure, he laid the groundwork for the independence movement that eventually led to the liberation from Spain.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Quito was a notable center of learning and discovery. Here, in splendid isolation, far from other universities and libraries, arose a sophisticated understanding of the world of microbes, both regarding their medical importance and their biological essence. This is nothing short of remarkable.
Quito at night. Source.
I confess to personal glee in this story. I spent my teen years in Quito and eventually became a student at the Universidad Central, the public institution that was built on the one founded by the Jesuits so long ago.
I am grateful to Dr. Núñez Freile for having brought this remarkable story to my attention. Dr. Núñez Freile is in charge of two highly informative blogs (in Spanish), one on infectious diseases here, the other on hand washing here.