Chemistry International
Vol. 21, No.2, March 1999

1999, Vol. 21
No. 2 (March)
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Chemistry International
Vol. 21, No. 2

March 1999

News and Notices from Other Societies and Unions

Present Status of Science in Cuba: Focus on Chemistry

Dr. Alberto J. Nuñez Sellés, President of the Cuban Chemical Society (Ave 21 & 200, Atabey, Apdo. 16042, CP 11600 Havana, Cuba; e-mail: [email protected], Fax: 537 336 471), furnished the following article (edited below for space considerations), based on his Opening Lecture at the Third International Congress in Chemistry, which was held in Havana from 1-4 December 1998.

Origins of Cuban Science
Nineteenth Century Scientific Development in Cuba
Early Twentieth Century Obstacles for Cuban Science
Post-Revolutionary Development of Cuban Science
Present Status of Chemistry in Cuba
Success of the Third International Congress in Chemistry
Future of Chemistry in Cuba

Origins of Cuban Science
In Cuba, chemistry has played a key role since the nineteenth century. The beginning of Cuban science is linked to the appearance of Cuban creoles (criollo) from Spanish parents or people of mixed heritage from Spanish settlers and African slaves (mulato) in the eighteenth century. The present Universidad de La Habana (University of Havana) was founded in 1728, with strong Spanish, French, and Italian influences. The first Cuban scientific society, Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País (Economic Society of Country Friends), established in 1793, aimed to contribute to the social and economic development of the country through the application of scientific knowledge; it is the oldest Cuban scientific society still active today.

Nineteenth Century Scientific Development in Cuba
The nineteenth century was decisive for scientific development in Cuba. Reverend Felix Varela introduced experimental teaching of physics and chemistry in Seminario San Carlos (1812), and his work was continued by Professor José Antonio Saco and José de la Luz Caballero. Tomás Romay developed concepts of immunization and tested his smallpox vaccine on himself and his family with success at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Carlos J. Finlay discovered the Aedes aegypti mosquito as the yellow fever transmitter (1881), thereby introducing this new concept of disease transmission. The first institution for scientific research in Cuba, the Instituto de Investigaciones Químicas (Institute of Chemical Research), was founded on 18 November 1848 by a Spanish professor, José Luis Casaseca, who served as its director until 1858. The Institute's first efforts were devoted to the study of Cuban natural products and soils applied to hygiene, industry, agriculture, and medicine. Professor Alvaro Reynoso, Institute Director from 1859-1868, developed the most comprehensive study at that time about sugar cane cultivation (1862), Ensayo sobre el cultivo de la cana de az�car (Essay about Sugar Cane Cultivation), from a chemical point of view considering soil composition and nutrients, fertilizer composition, and water intake. His book was translated into many foreign languages, and led to a true scientific revolution in the development of sugar cane crops. Professor Reynoso's work demonstrated how much chemistry was supporting Cuban agriculture and led to the creation of the Cuban Chemical Society in 1865.

The first national Academy of Sciences in America, Real Academia de Ciencias Médicas, Físicas y Naturales de La Habana (Royal Academy of Medical, Physics, and Natural Sciences), was founded in Cuba in 1861; thus, the present Academia de Ciencias de Cuba (Academy of Sciences of Cuba) has a history of 138 years. The development of Cuban science and chemistry in the nineteenth century is closely intertwined with the struggle against Spain, which began in 1868, seven years after creation of the Academy. Several Academy founders served in the Liberation Army, and some died on the battlefield. The highest exponent of Cuban social, literary, political, and scientific knowledge in the nineteenth century was José Martí, who died fighting against Spanish troops in 1895 and is considered Cuba's National Apostle.

Early Twentieth Century Obstacles for Cuban Science
The intervention of the U.S. Army in the war between Cuba and Spain (1898-1902) heralded the beginning of the twentieth century for Cuban society, including science. After 30 years of war, the Cuban population, comprising mostly farmers and people living in the countryside, was reconcentrated in the cities by the Spanish regime (1896-1898) to dilute Liberation Army support, but without proper housing or food. This oppression led to an extended famine within the whole population, more than 300,000 deaths, and the migration of most prominent university graduates to the United States or Europe. Cuban scientific activity also declined severely at the beginning of the twentieth century as part of the whole social breakdown.

Weak official support from the Government for the development of science in Cuba in the first half of the twentieth century, after official proclamation of the Republic (1902), led to a stagnation of scientific activity at the lowest level since the eighteenth century. For example, in 1958, the Academy of Sciences of Cuba was attached to the Ministry of Justice as an association, the National Geographic Society belonged to the Ministry of State, and the National Weather Observatory was part of the Cuban navy; all had minimal budgets, and some were sponsored by individuals or foundations. Educational status, as a basis for scientific development, was polarized and dependent on the economic capacity of the Cuban family. In 1958, almost 40% of the Cuban population were illiterate, and more than half of Cuban children had neither classrooms nor teachers. It was almost impossible to think about development of science under those conditions. Despite these privations, Juan Tomás Roig thoroughly studied Cuban flora, Pedro Kourí pioneered discoveries on the origin and treatment of tropical diseases, and Fernando Ortiz published social research on the origin of Cuban nationality. New state Universities were founded, such as the Universidad de Oriente (1947) and the Universidad Central de Las Villas (1957), with low budgets devoted almost entirely to education and virtually nothing for research. On the other hand, private Universities, such as the Universidad Católica de Santo Tomás de Villanueva (1946), were organized with resources and style comparable to U.S. universities, but only accessible to the wealthiest Cuban families. The construction of a new building for the School of Chemistry (today, the Faculty of Chemistry) at the University of Havana was completed in the 1950s, and it was followed by the creation of the Center of Chemical Research at the Universidad de Oriente within the Faculty of Natural Sciences. These two facilities, together with laboratories and a small pilot plant for sugar cane production at the Universidad Católica de Santo Tomás de Villanueva, became centers for the development of Cuban chemical R&D and education before 1959 with several hundred chemists. The polarization between a poor official university and a rich private one was also present in primary and high schools until 1961, when schools and universities were nationalized, and substantial support was given to the whole educational system, including R&D at the universities. The first half of the twentieth century can be called "the dark time" for the development of Cuban chemistry as well as science.


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