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Garcia de Orta: Portuguese physician, herbalist and naturalist

Orta’s lifelong project to accumulate knowledge on Eastern materia medica later materialized in his pioneering book, the Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India, or the Colloquies on the simples and drugs of India, published in 1563.

Palmira Fontes da CostaPalmira Fontes da Costa is Assistant Professor in Historiography, History of Science and Bioethics at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa (FCT).

Her main research interests are the history of medicine and natural history, science, medicine and the Portuguese Empire and the history of the medical book in the early modern period. Originally a biochemist by training, Professor Costa received a Ph.D in the History of Science from the University of Cambridge in 2000, working on The Experience of the Singular at the Royal Society of London in the Eighteenth Century.

She is the author of a number of books and articles, including The Singular and the Making of Knowledge at the Royal Society of London in the Eighteenth Century, published in 2009, and the editor of a number of works, including Percursos na Historia do Livro Médico 1450-1800 or Trajectories on the History of the Medical Book, 1450-1800, co-edited with Adelino Cardoso and published in 2011, and Medicine, Trade and Empire: Garcia de Orta’s Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India (1563) in Context, published in 2015.

In episode 19 of History Hub’s podcast series – ‘Kingdom, Empire and Plus Ultra: conversations on the history of Portugal and Spain, 1415-1898′ she discusses Portuguese physician, herbalist and naturalist Garcia de Orta with series host Dr Edward Collins.

Listen to ‘Garcia de Orta: Portuguese physician, herbalist and naturalist’, with Assistant Professor Palmira Fontes da Costa (Universidade Nova de Lisboa (FCT)).

Garcia de Orta

On the 12th March 1534, Garcia de Orta left Lisbon for India, taking with him his brief experience as a lecturer in Natural Philosophy at the University of Lisbon, a medical education at the universities of Salamanca and Alcalá de Henares as well as some years of medical practice in Portugal. At the time of Orta’s departure, Portugal had seen the growth of its empire in the East. His departure also occurred shortly after the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal in 1531, an event that would prove fateful for for Orta due to his Jewish ancestry.

It was in Goa, the capital of the Portuguese empire of the East, that Orta developed most of his activities, establishing a successful medical and commercial practice in materia medica and precious stones. He also acted as the physician of governors and viceroys and, for some time, as Chief Physician of the Military Hospital of Goa. Orta’s lifelong project to accumulate knowledge on Eastern materia medica later materialized in his pioneering book, the Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India, or the Colloquies on the simples and drugs of India, published in 1563, primarily a medical and botanical book. But while publication of the Colloquies can be seen as the high point in Orta’s life, it also marks a downward personal trajectory for him marked by poor health and monetary difficulties. He died in 1568, and  year after his death, his family was persecuted severely and his sister Catarina, who by now was also living in Goa, was condemned and burned alive on charges of Judaism. Under torture, members of Orta’s family admitted that he had been a crypto Jew which led to his posthumous auto de fé in 1580. As a result, the remains of Orta’s body were exhumed and publicly burned.

Palmira Fontes da Costa’s conversation with series host Dr. Edward Collins is now available as a podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud.

Kingdom, Empire and Plus Ultra

This History Hub podcast series features interviews with experts in the areas of Portuguese and Spanish history, from the beginning of the Portuguese discoveries in 1415 to the end of Spanish dominion in America in 1898. The interviews, conducted by historian Dr. Edward Collins, cover a range of topics on the domestic and overseas histories of both nations, which include, among others: the Portuguese explorations of Africa and Asia, Spanish navigation and settlement in America, the church in Portugal and Spain, monarchy and intermarriage in the Iberian kingdoms, natural science and mapping in America, the role of nautical science, Irish historical relations with Portugal and Spain, and imperial competition in Europe and overseas. The interviewees comprise a number of established and renowned academics, as well as up-and-coming researchers from universities and institutions worldwide.

This History Hub series is funded by UCD Seed Funding and supported by UCD School of History. Series editor is Mike Liffey (Real Smart Media).

Download series episodes on iTunes or listen via Soundcloud.

Episodes

Image: detail from “Title page of Garcia de Orta’s Colóquios first edition” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.