Chemistry International
Vol. 22, No.4, July 2000

2000, Vol. 22
No. 4 (July)
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Chemistry International
Vol. 22, No. 4
July 2000

 

Chemistry in Argentina

This article was contributed by Prof. Máximo Barón (Facultad de Ciências Exactas y Naturales, Universidad de Belgrano, Villanueva 1324, 1426 Buenos Aires, Argentina; E-mail: baron@ub.edu.ar; Tel.: +54 11 4511 4700; Fax: +54 11 4821 4887), Titular Member of IUPAC's Macromolecular Division Committee and Secretary of the Commission on Macromolecular Nomenclature (IV.1).

Introduction
Pre-19th Century Chemistry
From Self-Rule and Independence to Political Strife: 1810 to 1875
Industry, Teaching, and Research: 1875-1935
The Era of Expansion: 1936–1975
Last Quarter of the 20th Century
2000 and Beyond

Introduction

In attempting to weave the tale of chemistry in Argentina, the main problem is the choice of an adequate frame of reference. Of the many possibilities, I have favored a historical approach; because science and technology are essentially historical processes, it seems to be the most appropriate choice. Therefore, this tale is divided into periods of varying length of time that I hope will give a clear picture of how chemistry activities today in Argentina came into being.

Pre-19th Century Chemistry

To establish the exact limits of chemistry's past in the area that is now Argentina is not an easy task, because the temptation to link this activity to Europeans, though understandable, is not fair. Although the indigenous population was not large by the time Europeans arrived in the 2nd and 3 rd decades of the 16th century, the central and northern parts of the territory were provinces of the Inca empire. It is well known that the Incas were quite proficient in a number of activities related to chemistry, such as metallurgy, textile dyeing, pottery, etc. However, what could be called "the Argentine provinces" of this empire were actually frontier land and not only quite far from the center of power but also rather sparsely populated, so not much manufacturing took place.

Not much changed when the Europeans arrived, and the situation remained static for more than 200 years, mainly because the central powers in Spain prevented almost any activity that would imply the possibility of economic growth through industry or commerce. The few exceptions included silver and gold mining and some salting of cattle hides that were sent to the metropolis for tanning and subsequent manufacture of leather goods.

The large territory that included present-day Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina was actually divided into four provinces. These regions were ruled by governors sent by the Spanish crown, with no locally elected assemblies except small city councils whose members were chosen from the local Spanish upper class. The first important change came about in 1776 with the creation of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate. Cities and provinces thus gained a small measure of self-rule and, as a result, some important changes started taking place during the last decades of the 18th century. A printing press, which had belonged to the expelled Jesuits, was established for printing books - and even the first newspapers - and some enterprising locally born individuals began manufacturing goods. A soap-making plant was established within the city of Buenos Aires, the salting of hides for export became a thriving activity, some mining started to crop up in the interior provinces, and winemaking began in the central western region. But there were no schools in which to learn any trade, and whatever people were able to do was achieved by direct learning from those who had had some experience in the "old world" before coming to the colonies. Two of the reasons the Argentine National Congress of 1816 gave for declaring independence were the closure, on orders by the Madrid court, of a technical school opened in Buenos Aires in 1802 and the prohibition on sending young people to Europe to study chemistry so they could teach it when returning home. The justification offered by Madrid was that education and travel were "mere luxury items".

The idea of training young people in chemistry was by no means an idle thought. Quite to the contrary, as early as 1802, Dr. Cosme Argerich, a physician born in Buenos Aires who received his doctorate in medicine at the Royal School of Surgery of Barcelona, started a course in chemistry under the aegis of a colonial institution, the so-called "Protomedicato". The institution was responsible for certifying physicians (foreign-trained, of course) to practice medicine in the territory of the Viceroyalty. Also, between 1804 and 1806, Buenos Aires-born Hipólito Vieytes, the man who had started the soap factory, published a newspaper entitled Semanario de Agricultura, Comercio, e Industria (Agriculture, Commerce, and Industry Weekly). The publisher devoted many issues to a series of "Elements of Chemistry". Later, Vieytes became one of the founding fathers of Argentina, along with Dr. Argerich, who also organized medical services for the nascent armed forces and subsequently became their first Surgeon General.

For purposes of this narrative, this early era ended on 25 May 1810 when the vast territory that is now Argentina started on its way toward self-rule and, ultimately, independence six years later. A long and bitter war with the metropolis ended only in 1824 on the Peruvian battleground of Ayacucho, but in the meantime changes gained momentum quite rapidly, and a new period got underway.

From Self-Rule and Independence to Political Strife: 1810 to 1875

Building that housed the first chair of chemistry in Argentina (1822—1835) and the first School of Chemistry in the University of Buenos Aires (1897).

In a land with no industrial tradition, the initial years were very difficult–in large part because the main city, Buenos Aires, was far from the center of commercial activity, and the seaways were dominated by European fleets. Some supplies needed for the war of independence came from abroad, but in the interior provinces - especially Mendoza - workshops were established to make explosives, forge rifles and guns, supply ammunition, and provide much of what was needed for the military expedition across the Andes that José de San Martín started in January 1817. The war of independence was followed by a long period of civil strife that drained effort and human resources and stifled initiative. For a short period in the early 1820s, the situation seemed to improve, and this period appeared to be the dawn of a new life for the young country. The University of Buenos Aires was established; courses in mathematics, physics, and chemistry were taught by capable native and foreign teachers; and excellent laboratories were available for experimental work. Chemistry was taught by Dr. Manuel Moreno, then a recent graduate of the University of Maryland. Physics was in the able hands of Ottavio F. Mossotti, an Italian physicist and astronomer who started developing his ideas on dielectric phenomena while teaching in Buenos Aires. Both teachers had excellent experimental facilities because the local government had allocated funds upon the founding of the University of Buenos Aires for the purchase in Europe of two complete laboratories that were in full operation as early as 1826.

But this brief era of enlightenment was just a spark in the darkness; after 1835, ruthless internal strife followed for many years. Dawn came only after 1852 when the country finally got organized constitutionally. However, during the period between independence and constitutional organization, some steps were taken in the right direction. Sugar manufacturing was started in the province of Tucumán around 1821, salting of beef and hides began under the able supervision of European expert Antonio Cambaceres, who was hired for this purpose, and work on extraction of vegetable oils was attempted with some success. In the early 1860s, despite the bitter war with Paraguay, chemistry started to become a part of national economic growth. It is interesting to note that the first patent granted under Law 111 of 1863 was for a soap-making process. At this time, railroads started to penetrate the interior, and communications improved in general so that the country was ready for the next period of progress.

Industry, Teaching, and Research: 1875 to 1935

This half-century witnessed the economic ascent of Argentina, taking it from a sparsely populated territory with little industrial activity to an active and growing society. Chemical enterprises were, of course, a part of this prosperity, and it is interesting to note the major enterprises.

Industry

The manufacture of carbon black for the sugar industry started in 1874 and in four years generated exports of 6000 tons. Meatpacking began in 1875 and produced, as a by-product, high-quality gelatin that was also soon exported. These early endeavors were followed in rapid succession by the manufacture of tannins, acetic acid from grape alcohol, ethyl alcohol from molasses, sulfuric acid, soda and potash, glass, carbon sulfide, hypochlorites, oil refining, nitric and hydrochloric acids, copper sulfate, and corn products. The 1895 census recorded 317 chemical plants in Argentina. A serious international financial crisis in the 1890s slowed down the boom in chemical manufacturing; however, it resumed after the turn of the century, and the 1914 census listed 567 chemical industries backed by both local and foreign capital. The period through 1935 brought substantial growth in heavy chemicals. The sulfuric acid (both through lead chambers and catalysis), oxygen and nitrogen, oil distillation products, pulp and paper, and chlorosoda (via electrolysis) industries all thrived.

Teaching

Prof. John J. Kyle (1838-1922), director of the first chemistry doctoral thesis in Argentina (1901).

The teaching of chemistry became firmly established at the Universities of Córdoba, Buenos Aires, and La Plata. After several reorganizations, a school of chemistry was created in 1897 in the Facultad de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales of the University of Buenos Aires, and it included a doctoral program that produced the first graduates in 1901. Although the doctoral degree in chemistry was considered essentially professional, a thesis was the final step and a sine qua non condition. This dissertation requirement implied the need to do research either at the university or in one of the national agencies that had laboratories, such as Obras Sanitarias de la Nación (National Water Works) or Oficinas Chemistry International, Químicas Nacional y Municipal (National and Municipal Government Chemists). A similar system developed about the same time at the University of La Plata and later on with the creation of the Universities of Tucumán in the center north, Cuyo in the west, and Litoral on the Paraná River.

Research

During the first two decades of the 20th century, chemical research started both at Buenos Aires and La Plata under the direction of professors of inorganic and organic chemistry, and they published their results both locally and abroad. Such research was essentially limited to the universities and mostly focused in analytical and organic chemistry, natural products (vegetable and animal oils), some biochemistry, and a few attempts at inorganic and physical chemistry. There was no privately funded basic or applied research. Of particular interest are the contributions of Enrique V. Zappi (organic chemistry), Horacio Damianovich (one of the first scientists to obtain derivatives of noble gases), and Alfredo Sordelli (biochemistry). Toward the end of this period, the Asociación Argentina para el Progreso de la Ciencia [Argentine Association for the Advancement of Science (AAPC)]) was founded in Buenos Aires by a small group of visionary scientists active in physiology, biochemistry, and organic chemistry. By Law of Congress, the AAPC received a grant of one million pesos (equivalent to about USD 300 000 at the time) that was invested, and the revenues were used for scholarships and research grants. A substantial number of young graduates, who later became prominent in Argentine science, were able to get their careers started under this program. This initial government fund was increased in subsequent years, with donations from private sources (both individual and corporate). In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the AAPC acted as a National Research Council supporting basic research in fields ranging from pure mathematics to technological applications. In 1912, the Asociación Química Argentina [Argentine Chemical Association (AQA)]) was founded in Buenos Aires and immediately started to publish its scientific journals, Anales de la Sociedad Química Argentina. Local sections of the AQA soon opened in other cities, especially in those near chemistry departments or schools of national universities. Owing to legal requirements, the name of the journal was later changed to Anales de la Asociación Química Argentina, and it is now published regularly with papers in both English and Spanish. A technical information magazine (Industria y Química) and a bulletin are also published, with the latter both in print and e-mail editions. The bylaws of the AQA mandated that a chemistry library be organized and supported, and from a modest beginning that library has grown into a substantial source of chemical reference materials. What began as a repository of books and journals (obtained by exchange) is now a high-tech information center that employs all modern means to gain access to the many forms of digitalized chemical information.

The AQA has seven active divisions: Teaching of Chemistry, Industrial Chemistry, Safety and Health Hazards in the Workplace, Physical Chemistry, Chromatography, Medicinal Chemistry, and Theoretical Chemistry. The AQA offers courses on a variety of subjects of interest to industry, organizes National Chemistry Congresses in alternate years, has an extensive awards program that includes recipients who range from recent graduates to distinguished chemists, and has been associated with IUPAC since 1931. By 1935, with the economic crisis of the early 1930s nearly over, there were enough graduates at work in Argentine chemistry to take an active part in what was going to develop in the next half century when chemical industries were established in many regions of the country, product and process development became more and more frequent in many large and medium-sized industries, and research - both basic and applied - started to attract increasing interest.

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