José Hipólito Unánue

José Hipólito Unánue (1755-1833) was a Peruvian intellectual, educator, scientist, and journalist. He was one of the foremost physicians and thinkers of the transition period from the colonial to the independence era.

The 18th-century intellectual movement called the Enlightenment had its reflection in the viceroyalty of Peru, where a small group of individuals concerned themselves with developing and applying the revolutionary ideas of the emerging sciences. The ablest and most devoted student of these new trends in Peru was José Hipólito Unánue, an individual of diverse interests, a court physician, and an adviser of viceroys and presidents, whose life coincided with the transition from the 18th to the 19th century and from the viceroyalty to the republic.

José Hipólito Unánue was born in Arica on Aug. 13, 1755, of a well-to-do family who directed him toward an ecclesiastical career. The influence of an uncle, Father Pedro Pabón, a botanist, turned him, however, from theology to medicine and general science, in which fields he was a brilliant student. He soon won a professorship in the School of Medicine of Lima, where he instituted the systematic practice of dissection.

Seeking to apply the most modern procedures, Unánue established the San Fernando School of Medicine and was the first to introduce vaccination in Peru. Under the enlightened Francisco Gil de Taboado, thirty-fifth viceroy of Peru (1790-1796), the first scholarly periodical, the Mercurio peruano (1791-1795), was established in Lima. It was a vehicle for publicizing scientific, historical, economic, political, and statistical subjects, and together with a society called Amantes del País (Friends of the Country), of which Unánue was a founder, it stimulated a highly competent group of contributors.

Under the name "Aristo," Unánue contributed essays and scientific papers to the 12 volumes of the Mercurio peruano, but it was in 1806 that his most famous study was published in Lima. It was entitled Observations on the Climate of Lima and Its Influence on Organic Life, Particularly Mankind, and in it he anticipated many ideas of the science of anthropogeography. He wrote prolifically on education, metaphysics, and ethics, as well as on medicine, and he strongly defended Newtonian theories of physics and mathematics.

Unánue's intellectual distinction drew him into the political life of his time. He early embraced the cause of independence from Spain, writing a manifesto in its favor in 1812 and serving as secretary of the treasury in the provisional government. He was the presiding officer of the Constituent Congress, and as head of the Council of Ministers, he enjoyed the complete confidence of the "Liberator, " Simón Bolívar.

Always a man of deep moral and religious convictions and a dispassionate patriot, Unánue advocated a strong central control of public affairs. He was a member of the commission seeking to tender the government to a European prince. After the rejection of this concept of governing and the ensuing confusion in the public affairs of the new nation, he retired to private life and the resumption of his scientific interests. Greatly venerated and honored, he died on July 15, 1833.


Further Reading on José Hipólito Unánue

Unánue figures in Bernard Moses, Spanish Colonial Literature in South America (1922), and Germán Arciniegas, Latin America: A Cultural History (1965; trans. 1967). For general historical background see Frederick B. Pike, The Modern History of Peru (1967).