Rudolph Philippi: detained Sage

Rudolph Philippi: detained Sage

Little did we know of the tremendous scientific work that Rudolph Philippi developed for more than 40 years in Chile, work that did not go unnoticed by Charles Darwin. This magnificent book amends our ignorance about it.

Rudolph Amandus Philippi entered to study medicine in 1826, when the then famous University of Berlin was directed by none other than Hegel, and among the teachers that the young aspiring doctor had were lumens of the stature of Humboldt and Lichtenstein. This allows us to suppose that, just to set foot in Chile, Philippi became the best educated man in the country, a merit that, however, did not move his country people too much.

Encouraged by an adventurous brother and seeing that his professional options were diminished for political reasons, Rudolph decided to emigrate to Chile in 1851. And although today we do not know much of the tremendous work that the sage developed in his adopted homeland (he died in Santiago in 1904), his commitment did not go unnoticed by the most important naturalist of the time, Charles Darwin, who wrote to him congratulating him for the dedication put into disseminating the knowledge of Chilean nature.

Although Philippi did not agree on foot with the Theory of Evolution, to him we owe a crucial achievement in our secular education. This is how Ulrike Steenbuck tells it in the preface to The Prodigious Order of the Natural World, the magnificent book that rescues the figure and work of the German sage: "It was not easy for Philippi to establish the obligatory nature of the teaching of sciences in a country where Catholicism still formed a front to scientific progress. However, after arduous debates he managed to implement it, in 1866, in the National Institute of Santiago. For this he draftedNatural history elements, the first book of instruction of Natural Sciences in Chile".

Ravaged by the tragedy of having lost six young children, two adult children (a woman and a man) and finally his wife, Philippi wrote gloomy phrases from his refuge in the Quinta Normal, the botanical garden he had created in 1876 after a long state commission: "I live here as a hermit, I do not visit anyone, I don't know anyone, and since the fatal death of my lady I am, I don't want to say more hostile to men, but more withdrawn." Despite the pain and manifest disenchantment of these words, behind them it is still possible to perceive the immutable conviction that the sage embraced from a very young age: the need for total confinement in order to carry out his work. Philippi published hundreds of articles on the natural history of Chile, explored much of the country, discovered more than a thousand botanical species and became the largest contributor to the native zoological knowledge of his time.

Also striking are the ethnographic notes referring to the Valdivian Indians. There, the observer highlights the gastronomic and nutritional properties of the ulpo, points out that "women are as wide of waists as hips", mentions a mysterious hallucinogenic plant that occurs in the area, and through an ironic brushstroke, or a kind of well-concocted tongue twister, compares the Mapuche with the Huincas: "They have been described as thieves and it is true, it is not uncommon for them to steal a lot, but not as frequently as the descendants of the Spaniards, among whom there are even many who like to pass for knights and practice cattle theft almost as a profession."

The prodigious order of the natural world contains fabulous color plates that speak of the sage's talent for drawing, an activity that he undertook with that recognized seriousness of his from the age of six. The volume features a handful of letters from his daughter Ella, who adored her papaíto, which delve into the human dimension of the character. To this are added luminous articles, written by experts, which explain in detail the importance of Philippi's legacy. In addition, all the material gathered comes from the collections of the Austral University of Chile, whose publishing house has been surprising us for a long time with its blameless publications