February 17, 2014

February 18, 1914 - a date to remember: a hundred years ago, Jacques Huber died in Brazil

By Nelson Sanjad

Jacques Huber passed away one hundred years ago in Belém do Pará, where he had lived since 1895 and had become Director of the Goeldi Museum in 1907. At the age of 46, the world-famous botanist had succumbed to appendicitis.

His agony began in October 1913. Worse troubles befell him in November and in January 1914. On February 16 he underwent surgery by Dr. Pereira de Barros, but could not overcome the severe infection. On February 18, at 1:00 a.m., he died. The causa mortis: bulbar toxaemia.

Local newspapers, regardless of their ideological bent, were unanimous in recognising the professional merits of this scientist. The evening newspaper “O Imparcial” was the first to break the news. It wrote on its second page: “Dr. Jacques Huber has been acclaimed with enormous gratitude by the Amazonian people for his extreme effort and dedication, which he devoted to the economic interests of the region. (...) The distinguished scientist contributed enormously to the development of our Museum, of which he was the competent Director, working decisively for the economic improvement of the State of Pará, which benefitted from his remarkable and highly respected work, and also from his financial and economic studies.”

Next day, “Folha do Norte” – a newspaper furiously opposed to the local government – published in the centre of its front page a long obituary starting with the sentence: “Yesterday, the news of the death of Dr. Jacques Huber echoed painfully across the city” And then: “… he performed the tasks assigned to him by the Government in a superior manner, but he used to consider them as merely incidental, because his great love, his supreme dedication was the Museum.” And more: “… he left a considerable amount of work both by number and quality, despite his relatively young age. His activity was astonishing, the family couldn’t testify to even some minutes of rest. It was this dedication to work, this lack of rest that made ​​him to be overcome by illness and eventually led to his death.” Would the Government carry an indirect responsibility for Huber’s death?

This obituary was followed by news about the funeral, which was financed by the Government of the State: at 3:00 p.m. the coffin was taken from the Hubers’ house to the Cemetery Santa Izabel. Many garlands of flowers accompanied the procession with hundreds of people on foot, in 18 coaches and cars, and in two tramways especially reserved for the purpose. Among these people were authorities (including the Mayor, Secretaries, Senators and Deputies), military, civil servants, doctors, journalists, farmers, dealers, bankers, the local Swiss community and all members of the diplomatic and consular corps.

Jacques Huber, "the great friend of trees" (Magazine "Árvore", Belém, 1914).

The same news were spread by other local newspapers such as the “Correio de Belém”, “A Província do Pará” and “Estado do Pará”, and were reproduced around the world, from Rio de Janeiro to New York, and then to London, Paris, Geneva, Basle, Berlin – and eventually reaching “The Straits Times”, in Singapore, which reported on April 11: “Dr. Jacques Huber: death of South American Rubber Pioneer.”

Interestingly, one of the most poignant texts about Huber came from the Far East: “… he was considered not only the foremost authority on the scientific aspects of rubber growing in the Amazon valley but was perhaps more active than any other official in the attempt to reduce the wild chaos of Amazon rubber production to some semblance of order and organization so that it could meet the constantly growing rivalry of the Far East.” In a lecture presented in New York he gave “a better idea than they [his audience] had ever heard before of the problem that the rubber interests of Brazil were called upon to solve.” And more: “… he published a book giving probably the best comparative survey of the rubber situation in the Amazon and in the East that had ever been attempted.” Finally: “He had many friends in the United States and in Europe and in the Far and Middle East. In fact, his acquaintance extended to every continent wherever men are interested in any phase of rubber, and his death will be widely lamented.”

Portrait published in the "Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen", Gotha (Germany), 1914.

Locally and internationally, the disappearance of Huber was mourned because he had been at the height of his scientific production and political action. In the four years before his death, Huber had attended the Rubber Congress in Manaus (1910), the International Exhibition in Turin (1911), the Second International Rubber Exhibition in London (1911), the Third International Rubber Exhibition in New York (1912), and participated in the Akers Expedition to the Far East (1911-1912). To the government of Pará he presented two detailed reports on the need for the economic reorganization of the Amazon. He also left evidence that he was preparing a major work on taxonomy, biogeography and productivity of Amazonian rubber trees. Several months before his death, he complained in letters that he felt exhausted, but that his political activity was necessary to preserve his own scientific work.

On March 4, 1913, Huber wrote to Robert Chodat, his former teacher in Geneva: “La crise politique et financière par laquelle nous passons dans ce moment, est tellement grave, qu’il faut une bonne dose d’optimisme pour ne pas désespérer de l’avenir. Mais je resterai sur mon poste aussi longtemps que ce sera possible. Ce serait le désastre de ma vie d’être forcé d’abandonner le Musée et le jardin botanique, unique poste avancé de la science d’une région immense et merveilleusement riche au point de vue botanique.”

Huber died at exactly the time when the Amazonian economy went into a deep economic and monetary crisis. With it, the staff of the Goeldi Museum also experienced some dramatic moments, and the institution would take decades to recover. Therefore, Huber’s decease, beyond leaving a grieving family may also be seen as the end of an optimistic, promising, but vanishing era.

When one looks at the repercussions of Huber’s death in the local press, the stress of Amazonian society emerges, as if people knew exactly what was bound to happen to the local economy. They gathered around the coffin of Huber in a kind of ritual for collective grief. His involvement in government and international affairs was so strong that his death was immediately associated, from Belém to Singapore, with a social tragedy. One of the condolence letters addressed to the Goeldi Museum by a Brazilian rubber grower expressed in a few words the general feeling: “Our last hope is gone.”

How is this reaction to be explained? Why were so many expectations projected onto one man? Perhaps some answers can be found in the development that distinguishes Huber’s work. From his first articles on Mediterranean and Alpine algae to the essays on the economic situation of the Amazon valley, the work of Huber reveals an ability to explore new possibilities and to relate phenomena. Huber realised very early that – in a country with little scientific tradition such as Brazil – his work would depend on an agenda of political and economic interests. He addressed some of the most serious problems of the Amazonian society, and maybe he did not have an alternative to avoid the ‘eye of the storm’. Considering the repercussion in the newspapers, his effort had been greatly appreciated.

Even today it is still difficult to appreciate and to evaluate the totality of Jacques Huber’s contributions. His oeuvre is extensive, complex, and diverse. It had been developed in different countries, but under similar theoretical approaches, and it was published in four languages. It also touches science, art, society, the economy and politics. What is the legacy of this man? There is much more to be researched.

The author thanks to Martin Huber, Christine Huber and Marcel Güntert for the generous revision of the text.

No comments:

Post a Comment