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Recovering Hernandez de Toledo's works

Historians at the Institución Milà y Fontanals are working to recover Francisco Hernandez’s works. Hernandez, who was a naturalist and physician in the Court of Philip II of Spain, is the author of the biggest compilation known of America’s fauna and flora.

Copy of a drawing from Francisco Hernandez’s works, included in the Pomar Codice, preserved in the Universitat de Valencia library.Francisco Hernández (1514-1587), also known as Hernández de Toledo (as he was born in La Puebla de Montalbán, Toledo) led the first scientific expedition in History. He travelled to Mexico with the express order from King Philip II of Spain of collecting any herb, plant or remedy that could be of interest. His work was vast and magnificent. Unfortunately, different circumstances meant that his work was forgotten.  

José Pardo, CSIC scientist at the Institución Milá y Fontanals in Barcelona, explains that “Hernandez’s journey was the first scientific expedition in history. It was important from many points of view, since, at that time Botany, Zoology and Mineralogy were all key to the discovery of medicines, as medical remedies could come from any of these sources.”

Hernández set sail for America in 1570. After seven years of expeditions, he went back to the Court with more than 3.000 species from México described, including plants and animals. “It was an amazing quantity” points out José Pardo. “We should notice that the Dioscórides, the reference book during those years, which contained all the flora and fauna known from the Mediterranean and Oriental worlds, ‘only’ had 500 species”. Unfortunately, nowadays very little of Hernandez’s legacy is known by the public at large.

José Pardo is leading a project to rediscover the works by Francisco Hernandez in conjunction with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma of México (UNAM). Their issue is to recover all that they can possibly find out of Hernandez’s lost works and to publish them afterwards in a new edition.

Hernandez’s work, entitled “The India’s Natural History”, became an indisputable reference book during the XVI and XVII centuries.

Finding out and restoring copies

Hernandez’s work, entitled The India’s Natural History, became an indisputable reference book during the XVI and XVII centuries. His manuscripts went from species descriptions accompanied by accurate illustrations to recipes of natural remedies used by Mexico’s indigenous population.

Hernández died ten years after he went back from his expedition and before he could see his work published. His manuscripts were left in the custody of the El Escorial monastery. Many specialists from all over Europe went there to read them. Between 1630 and 1650, the Accademia dei Lincei published part of these manuscripts. In 1671, a fire burnt the El Escorial library and destroyed thousands of codices, including Hernandez’s originals.

Copy of a drawing from Francisco Hernandez’s works, included in the Pomar Codice, preserved in the Universitat de Valencia library.Luckily, José Pardo points out, the Accademia dei Lincei had previously published part of his work. And although his manuscripts disappeared, many scholars did copy some of them, and others made copies from copies. That’s how scientific information was mainly transmitted in those years (it is later that printed books became something popular). So, there are letters, descriptions by visitors that read the book in El Escorial; therefore, it was possible to reconstruct pictures and text from those copies”.

In 1960, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma of México (UNAM) edited Obras Completas by Hernández. It contained, on one hand, what had been published by the Lincei Academy and, on the other hand, what the Spanish editor Casimiro Gómez Ortega (1741-1818) had recovered from copies. Nevertheless, it is not the whole work yet. Besides, the seven volumes of this Mexican edition are out-of-print and they can only be found in a few libraries.

The issue of CSIC scientists, that work together with scientists at UNAM, is to recover all they can of Hernandez’s lost work. Other centres that contribute to this project are from Italy (the Accademia dei Lincei) and from the USA, where there is a growing interest in Hernandez since the publication of The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernández in 2000.

The multidisciplinary project combines the work of science and art historians; linguists and experts in náhuatl (the indigenous language of Mexico, which was reproduced by Hernández); anthropologists and others. The goal, Pardo explains, is to find out which copies and manuscripts still exist, and to make a complete edition with the material recovered. Scientists think that they already have 60% of what was the whole of Hernandez’s work.  

The good news is that they are discovering more manuscripts than they could imagine. They knew there were copies in several archives in Rome, Mexico, Montpellier, London (translations into English), but they are finding more documents, specially copies of the two thousand and something drawings that indigenous painters did for Hernandez during the journey. The project, that enters its second stage this year, is funded by the Spanish National Plan of R+D and by the UNAM.

Why has Hernandez, a scientist as great as the best in his time, been almost totally forgotten? As Jose Pardo explains: “Different reasons could explain it, but I think the most important is the little interest for Spanish scientific culture demonstrated during several generations. It has been preferred to say that it didn’t exist. On the contrary, in Mexico they have been studying Hernandez’s work for a long time, with the contribution of leading experts including Spanish Republican exiles such as Germán Somolinos, who directed the publication of Hernandez’s Obras Completas in the sixties.”