- “Catástrofe morboso de las minas mercuriales de la Villa de Almadén del Azogue” (1778) de José Parés y Franqués
During the three centuries of the Spanish American empire, mercury extracted from the mines of Almadén in southern Spain constituted crucial raw material for the production of silver in the colonies. The unhealthy working conditions existent in the mines, and in particular the high toxicity of mercury, affected the workers’ health within short periods of time. This volume, carefully edited by Spanish historian of science Alfredo Menéndez Navarro and preceded by a useful preliminary study, brings to the press for the first time José Parés y Franqués’s important manuscript of 1778 on the diseases affecting the miners of Almadén. Parés y Franqués served as physician in residence for the newly created Royal Hospital for Miners from 1761 until his death in 1798. The book under review was one of his eleven scientific works, all of which (including the one under review) remained unpublished, with the exception of a short note.
Catástrofe morboso is one of the first medical works written in Spain on labor-related pathologies. It is also an impressive firsthand description of the diseases affecting the workers in the mines. Moreover, it expresses some of the concerns [End Page 506] of the recently established Bourbon monarchy in Spain. Throughout the eighteenth century, Almadén pioneered a pattern of state intervention that emphasized assistance and conservation of the labor force, emerging from the new awareness of the economic importance of health. As is clear in the book, Parés y Franqués was active in the promotion of expanded assistance for disabled miners.
The volume consists of two “treatises”: the first deals with the “physical diseases” of the miners, while the second focuses on “moral-medical” disorders. Unlike previous writers like Antoine de Jussieu, Parés y Franqués argues that all these disorders were caused solely by the toxic effects of mercury, thus pointing to a single etiology for all diseases. The consequence of this approach is the implicit conclusion pervading the book that little could be done to prevent such diseases, since the improvement of labor conditions would not eliminate the miners’ exposure to the mineral. Thus, the whole work highlights the importance of treatment rather than prevention of disorders. The author, consistently with the medical tradition current in Spain at that time, makes a point in stressing his “antisystematic” or antitheoretical thinking. He opposes the use of closed theoretical systems to explain the origin of diseases and claims that he bases his conclusions purely on his own clinical observations.
What probably constitutes the most interesting part of the book, however, is the second treatise. After an extensive philosophical digression on the mutual interdependence between soul and body, Parés y Franqués discusses three moral disorders that originated in the mines: excessive sexual desire, vanity, and gluttony. Without denying the importance of free will, he attributes to the three moral diseases the same causes that he recognizes for the physical disorders: the effects of exposure to mercury. By medicalizing moral behaviors, however, he explores the normative capacity of medicine as a vehicle for the transmission of moral values. Therefore, he offers an incipient formulation of some of the themes that would be dear to nineteenth-century hygienism. Paradoxically, the cures that he proposes for these type of disorders are based on a firm exercise of free will in order to control the excessive desires. Parés y Franqués is thus promoting among the miners values of temperance that were consistent with the maintenance of social and labor order.
This is an important book, which should appeal to specialists in the history of science in Spain, the history of mining, and also, marginally, Latin American colonial history.