- A Impulsos de una Rara Resolución: El Viaje de Jose Celestino Mutis al Nuevo Reino de Granada, 1760–1763 by Jaime Bernal Villegas, Alberto Gómez Gutiérrez
Jaime Bernal Villegas and Alberto Gómez Gutiérrez’s A Impulsos de una Rara Resolución builds on scholarship about the life and work of José Celestino Mutis, a Spanish physician from Cádiz who arrived in New Granada, a Spanish colony that comprised present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador, in the early 1760s. Mutis is a notable figure in the history of science and medicine in New Granada, not just because of his medical knowledge, but also because he became an accomplished naturalist, whose talents were recognized by ecclesiastical authorities and government officials both there and in Spain. In 1783, moreover, Mutis [End Page 198] received license to carry out an ambitious botanical expedition throughout the colony. As a result, he has been called the father of modern science in Colombia.
While historians have studied Mutis extensively, especially in Colombia, there remains much to be done to reconstruct his initial journey from Spain to Bogotá via the Caribbean port city of Cartagena. Bernal and Gómez set out to address precisely this gap in their study. They argue that Mutis’s introduction to New World communities and flora and fauna along the journey was a pivotal experience that prompted his shift from physician to naturalist. They conclude that his eventual frustration with practicing medicine in New Granada was due in part to a growing fascination with the study of the colony’s environments.
A Impulsos de una Rara Resolución takes its title, which translates as “Due to the Impulses of a Strange Resolve,” from a letter to Charles III, in which Mutis described his reasons for traveling to the New World. The book is organized chronologically to narrate this journey and Mutis’s professional transformation. After a brief introduction, the first chapter examines political and intellectual life in Madrid, where Mutis received his title as medical doctor and practiced as chair of anatomy within a hospital. Succeeding chapters chronicle his journey from Madrid to Cartagena in 1760, his travels inland to Bogotá via Mompox in 1760 and 1761, and his decision to establish residence in New Granada and practice botany in 1762 and 1763. An epilogue highlights several of his achievements in the decades that followed. Like earlier chapters, it focuses not just on his relationships with ecclesiastical and government authorities, but also on his correspondence with European scientists such as Linnaeus. Finally, an appendix includes several useful documents.
Although neither Bernal nor Gómez is a professional historian—the former is a geneticist by training, while the latter is a specialist in biology and microbiology—the two scholars have compiled an impressive range of historical documents. They draw heavily on Mutis’s own writings, many of which were republished by Guillermo Hernández de Alba in 1968. They also incorporate Jesuit documents, records of other travelers and natural historians, materials from Spain’s Royal Botanical Archives and Archive of the Indies, and numerous images. They cite a broad range of secondary sources on the history of New Granada, the history of medicine, and the history of botany.
Despite this wealth of sources, Bernal and Gómez ultimately confront gaps in Mutis’s own accounts, which have hindered others from analyzing his journey. To address this problem, they adopt imaginative, though at times tenuous, ways of reconstructing the past. For example, in retracing Mutis’s overland journey, the authors rely on accounts left by the Franciscan priest Juan de Santa Gertrudis Serra and the Prussian naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt, who traveled the same route. They use these sources to speculate about what Mutis might have experienced, what challenges he might have faced, and how he might have acted. In this way, their work assumes that his experiences and those...