Ignacy Domeyko: The Philomath of Chile
portrait, Ignacy Domeyko:
The Philomath of Chile, Ignacy Domeyko, 1856, photo: the National Library / Polona, center, ignacy_domeyko-polona.jpg
There's a mineral, a dinosaur, an asteroid, a spider and 140 spots on the map of Chile named in his honour. Few have contributed to Chilean science and industry as Ignacy Domeyko did. We'd call him a Renaissance man, but he happened to live and work in the age of steam and iron.
A scientist & conspirator
There's a mineral, a dinosaur, an asteroid, a spider, and 140 spots on the map of Chile named in his honour. Few have contributed to Chilean science and industry as Ignacy Domeyko did. We'd call him a Renaissance man, but he happened to live and work in the age of steam and iron.
His interest in the secrets hidden inside our planet is kindled by his uncle, who graduated from the Mining Academy. When Ignacy is 14, he enrols in the Vilnius University: he is the youngest student there.
Ignacy makes friends with an older student, Adam Mickiewicz: a great many notable figures are attending the Vilnius University at the time. Soon, they establish a secret university organisation known as the Philomaths. It is a learned society-cum-social club with undertones of patriotic conspiracy: the idea seems innocent enough, but the Russian authorities approach it with unusual severity.
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Many members of the group are arrested and imprisoned, or sentenced to exile and katorga in Siberia. Domeyko spends almost a year in prison. Thanks to his family’s efforts, Ignacy is spared exile and his sentence is a lifetime of police observation and home arrest: he is never to leave his family village again. The authorities take his Master’s diploma and ban him from applying for work in any government institutions. Having lost any chances for a career, Domeyko spends six years working on the farm.
When the November Uprising breaks out, Domeyko immediately volunteers. He is caught with an important report and only by miracle escapes the firing squad. When the anti-Tsarist revolt fails, Domeyko leaves, just like other Polish political refugees: first, he goes to Dresden where he joins Mickiewicz (who is working on Dziady, Part III) and starts using a pseudonym, ‘Żegota’. Then, he illegally moves to France.
From the Seine to La Serena
In Paris, Domeyko makes up for the lost time and devotes all his time to studying. He attends lectures at the Sorbonne, Collège de France and the Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. He graduates as a mining engineer.
Suddenly, Domeyko receives a job offer on the other side of the world. Chile is a young country, established some 20 years earlier. It’s ambitious and rich in natural resources, but also in need of technology and administrative structures. For a driven scientist, the chance to research unknown parts of the world is even better motivation than a lucrative contract.
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In 1983, Domeyko boards a ship that takes him to a Brazilian port in Bahia. He wastes no time during his travels, analysing geological samples collected during their stops at Madeira and the Canary Islands (the scientist had brought 500 kilograms of lab instruments with him). From Bahia, they sail to Rio de Janeiro, then transfer on a ship to Buenos Aires. From there, there are some 1,800 kilometres to cross on land: first across the endless Pampas, then over the Andes, until finally, the journey that took them over four months in total is over.
Apostle of science, defender of Indians
When Domeyko arrives at La Serena, it’s a small provincial town of 6,000 residents. Domeyko becomes the head of the local mining college. Soon he transforms it into a distinguished institution. He has a lot of work to do: apart from coordinating the school, he is preparing teaching plans and writing new textbooks.
He essentially creates the whole Chilean higher education system from scratch. For the next 16 years, he is a rector of the University of Chile in Santiago. His students adore him. Domeyko values experience, not the cramming of knowledge. He encourages his students to experiment and organises (paid!) internships. The most talented students receive scholarships to study in France.
Known to burn the candle from both ends, Domeyko spends his holidays at scientific expeditions. Over the course of several decades, he travels more than 7,000 kilometres by foot, horse or boat (despite being scared of water). During his travels, he discovers numerous ores of gold, silver, copper and black coal, as well as some yet-unknown minerals: domeykite, arquevite and amiolite.
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Domeyko is the first to notice the economic importance of the saltpetre deposits (the most abundant in the world) in the Chilean desert. He is also interested in earthquakes. He builds an astronomical observatory and collects meteorites.
The scientist is committed to defending the indigenous people of Chile: the Mapuches. He publishes a book titled Aurakania and its Inhabitants, where he opposes brutal colonisation. He convinces the president of Chile to make a change in the country’s politics. He condemns slavery and exploitation in Chilean mines.
In his diaries, he confesses his longing for Poland, but the Chilean authorities don’t want to lose such a valuable man and keep tasking him with new projects. Moreover, he falls in love. Domeyko will only travel to his homeland shortly before his death. He passes away in 1889.
After his death, a Chilean daily writes:
Domeyko was more than just a professor. He was an apostle of science and education in Chile.
In 1885, a gold medal was made in his honour, with an inscription that read: ‘Education – Work – Selflessness’. No words could better describe Domeyko’s legacy.
In Chile, there is a mountain range called Cordilliera de Domeyko, a mountain named Cerro Domeyko, a town Pueblo Domeyko and a port, Lugareja Domeyko – as well as 140 other landmarks named in honour of the Polish scientist. His fame has even travelled beyond the globe (planetoid 2784 Domeyko from the main asteroid belt). Named for Domeyko is also the prehistoric reptile (Domeykosaurus, a type of titanosaur), the Jurassic shellfish Nautilus domeykus, the pterosaur Domeykodactylus and the smallest mygalomorph spider (Lycinus domeyko).
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Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate, spoke to Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz during the Congress of Culture in Santiago in 1993. Of Domeyko, he said:
Just think, how much we owe him … everything … all our industry … the organisation of secondary and higher education… What a good man he was.
Originally written in Polish by Patryk Zakrzewski, translated by Agata Zano