The Botanical Collections of José Celestino Mutis

José Celestino Mutis

José Celestino Mutis

On April 6, 1732, Spanish priest, botanist and mathematician José Celestino Mutis was born. Between 1783 and 1808, Mutis tirelessly led an extraordinary endeavor to collect and illustrate the plants of Colombia, assembling one of the richest botanical collections in the world of his time.

José Celestino Mutis began studying medicine at the College of Surgery in Cádiz. There, Mutis also studied physics, chemistry, and botany. He graduated from the University of Seville in 1755 and received his doctorate in medicine a few years later. He became a professor in Madrid and continued studying botany at the Migas Calientes Botanical Gardens. However, he soon decided to leave for America and become the private physician of the new viceroy of New Granada, Pedro Messía de la Cerda. From his arrival in the Viceroyalty, Mutis concentrated on his botanical studies, beginning work on an herbal and investigating for cinchona, which was considered a panacea for the treatment of all kinds of diseases.

In the 1760s, Mutis proposed to the king that he sponsor an expedition to study the flora and fauna of the region. Unfortunately, he had to wait 20 years for the funding. In 1783, the king authorized his expedition. Meanwhile, he concentrated on commercial and mineralogical projects. In 1772 he was ordained a priest. He was in regular correspondence with scientists in Spain and elsewhere in Europe, particularly Carolus Linnaeus.[3]

José Celestino Mutis led the Royal Botanical Expedition for 25 years. He explored thousands of square kilometers and developed a meticulous methodology that included the harvesting of the samples in the field together with detailed descriptions, including data on the surroundings of each species and its utility. Mutis discovered and described hundreds of plants and sent more than 8000 plates, plus maps, correspondence, notes and manuscripts to Spain. His museum consisted of around 24.000 dried plants

During his time in America, José Celestino Mutis determined the longitude of Bogotá by the observation of an eclipse of a satellite of Jupiter and was a major influence on the construction of the National Astronomical Observatory. In 1762, at the inauguration of the chair of mathematics at the Collegio del Rosario, he expounded the principles of the Copernican system and of the experimental method of science, leading to a confrontation with the church. In 1774 he had to defend the teaching of the principles of Copernicus, as well as natural philosophy and modern, Newtonian physics and mathematics, before the Inquisition. In 1801, Alexander von Humboldt visited Mutis during his America expedition.[4] Humboldt stayed with Mutis for two months, and greatly admired his botanical collection.

José Celestino Mutis died in Bogotá on 2 September 1808, at age 76, a victim of apoplexy. In his honour, the genus Mutisia L.f. of the plant family of daisies (Asteraceae) was named.

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