The Filipino Polymath

By Carlos Manuel Eusoya

PHOTO: Knights of Rizal
When you hear of Dr. Jose Rizal’s name, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? A powerful writer? An empowering hero?

Rizal is best known for his written literary works that inspired Filipinos during the era of Spanish colonization. However, Rizal was more than just an author. The hero’s extensive scope of knowledge makes him a polymath - a learned individual who is intelligent in numerous subjects. For example, Rizal was a sculptor, a painter, and an innovator. He also exemplified skills in many fields of sciences such as medicine, ophthalmology, and biology.

As we celebrate Rizal Day, let us revisit the four greatest scientific accomplishments of the Filipino Polymath.

1. Rizal prevented a deadly disease from spreading globally.

While he was exiled in Dapitan, Rizal managed to collect a snail specimen. Rizal sent the sample to German naturalist Otto Franz von Möllendorff, who identified the snail as a new species and named it Oncomelania hupensis quadrasi.

Rizal’s snail specimen would become important decades after his collection. In 1932, Filipino scientist Dr. Marcos Tubangui consulted Möllendorff’s study regarding the O. h. quadrasi and theorized that the same snail species was an intermediate host for the parasite Schistosomiasis japonica.

The parasite causes the disease Schistosomiasis, which infects the host’s blood, causing abdominal pain and bloody urine. Through Rizal’s contribution, Dr. Tubangui was able to confirm that the parasite transmits itself through O. h. quadrasi snails. This led to the development of therapeutic drugs that can treat Schistosomiasis, thus preventing a potential epidemic.

2. Rizal submitted animal specimens to the Dresden Museum.

Snails aren’t the only specimens that Dr. Jose Rizal collected. The naturalist also gathered numerous samples of birds, fish, insects, crustaceans, mammals, and even reptiles!

These specimens were submitted to the Dresden Museum in Germany. For his contributions to the study of animals, Rizal was recognized as a dedicated zoologist. Three animal species were also named in honor of the hero: a flying lizard (Draco rizali); a frog (Rhacophorus rizali); and a beetle (Apogonia rizali).

3. Rizal was skilled in ophthalmology.

Many Filipinos know that Rizal was a skillful ophthalmologist (a doctor who specializes in disorders of the eye). However, only a few know how Rizal was able to use his ophthalmology expertise in aiding the public.

After finishing his doctorate in medicine at the University of Madrid and studying under the supervision of renowned eye surgeon Dr. Louis de Wecker, Rizal went back to the Philippines and removed his mother’s cataract.

Rizal’s reputation as an ophthalmologist grew, and patients across the country and even from as far away as China sought his treatment. Rizal did not use this as an opportunity to earn; rather, he saw this as a way to help the impoverished. He opened a clinic that charged moderate fees for the financially stable and free treatments for the poor.

4. Rizal helped Dapitan develop with scientific innovations.

When Rizal came back to Dapitan in 1892, he saw that the town was severely underdeveloped. There were no street lighting, education, healthcare centers, or water systems in the area.

Writing for Philippine Star, University of California Professor Ben O. de Lumen said that Rizal helped build a hospital in Dapitan. He taught medical practices and scientific farming, helped in the construction of a water system “based on gravity”, and imported advanced farm machinery and fishing nets.

Truly, Dr. Jose Rizal has accomplished many achievements, not just in literature, but also in the many fields of science. From the prevention of a global disease to proficiency in ophthalmology, Rizal’s feats transcends generations and continues to make a mark today.

Report Sources: DOH, DOST, Philippine Star (Facts about Rizal), Philippine Star (Rizal, the Scientist)

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