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Garcia da Orta, Founder and Martyr of Tropical Medicine


André J. Fabre                     Octobre 2012    

Garcia da Orta was born in Castelo de Vide, Portugal, from a Jewish family from Spain who had to leave their country to escape the Inquisition.

 He began his studies at University of Alcalá and thereafter, in Salamanca, learning medicine, arts and philosophy. He returned to Portugal in 1523 to practice medicine in his hometown, then, in 1526 went to Lisbon University, where he obtained the tile of  Professor of Logic.

Meanwhile, hunting to "bad Catholics" had begun, and Garcia was forced, in 1534, to leave Portugal. He served as Physician aboard the flagship of Martim Afonso de Sousa, Governor of Portuguese Indies. Thus, Garcia took part in several naval campaigns, and, finally; decided, in 1538, to stay in Goa, capital of the "Estado da India".

He was destined to great career : Goa was at that time a booming city, as a main hub where traders came from all over the world, not only from Portugal and Spain but also Italy, Greece, Persia and Asia.

In 1540, Garcia married the daughter of a wealthy Spanish merchant of Goa, Brianda Solis. At the top of his career, he showed a real passion for Indian Pharmacopoeia. Highly interested in medicinal herbs, he created botanical gardens, mainly in Goa and Mumbai, better known as Bombay.

Garcia had been, all his life, fascinated, as he told himself, by "all things and people of India". From his unique experience, he left a book named "Dialogue on Medicinal Herbs and Drugs of India" ("Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia") published in 1563 in Goa.

The "Coloquios" are a dialogue between Garcia and a physician, called Ruano. Answering to the many questions of his friend, Orta develops his personal comments, reviewing, not only the "simples" but also many products coming from India, as ivory, lacquer, diamonds, "all things," he explains, "which hold less medicine than history but often good to know".

A total of 45 medicinal plants is presented there following a very didactic classification : first comes name and etymology, then, origin of substances and markets where they can be obtained. Then comes botanical description, with a listing, as in the time of Antiquity, of the main identification criteria. Finally comes the most important chapter, discussion on medicinal use of the herbs and their therapeutic applications.

A very large place is given to tropical diseases, mainly cholera with a report of the first autopsy ever performed in India.

It should also be stressed that, for the first time in Occident, a long description is given in the "Coloquios" of cannabis, its use and effects.

The most amazing fact about the "Colloquios" is that the book, believed to be lost, was found, by chance, in 1567, hidden in a librarian's shop in Lisbon, by a French botanist, Charles de Lécluse who translated the book in latin "to make it understable, as he said, by all learned readers".

In 1549, Garcia's family, his mother and two sisters who had been thrown in jail in Spain came to Goa to get refuge but they only found bad luck. The Holy Inquisition was waiting for them: Catarina, Garcia's sister, was burnt alive on a market's place in 1569.

As for Garcia himself, he had died a few weeks earlier, he could only be posthumously sentenced by Inquisition : his remains were exhumed in 1580 and burnt at the stake in Auto Da Fe.

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Date de dernière mise à jour : 29/07/2013

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