Caldas, Francisco José De

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Caldas, Francisco José De

(b. Popayán, New Granada [now Colombia], 1768; d. Santa Fe (now Bogotá], New Granada, 29 October 1816),

botany, astronomy, geography.

Caldas taught himself mathematics and astronomy. His father sent him to Santa Fe, capital of the viceroyalty of New Granada, to study law, but family circumstances forced him to go into the transportation business. At Quito in 1802 he met Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, who had become familiar with his work in Popayán and considered him a genius. Caldas spent six months with the travelers and learned much of what he needed to become an astronomer, geodesist, volcanologist, geographer, and botanist. He hoped to accompany Humboldt on the rest of his journey, and it is not known why he did not do so. At this time José Mutis, who had sent Caldas money to finance his trip with Humboldt, made him a member of a botanical expedition and commissioned him to collect plants, mainly cinchon as, from the southern part of New Granada. Later he named Caldas director of a newly built astronomical observatory (the first in South America), geographer of the viceroyalty, and his successor.

In December 1805 Caldas arrived in Bogotá, where he took over directorship of the observatory and began work on an improved map of the viceroyalty. In January 1808 he began publication of Semanario del nuevo reino, which continued until 1811 and contained studies that are still important.

When the province of Bogotá proclaimed its independence in 1810, Caldas was among the most active rebels. He published the Diario politico, enlisted in the army of liberation as an engineer, directed the army training school, and organized the arsenal for manufacturing rifles, gunpowder, and ammunition. When the rebellion was suppressed in 1816, Caldas sought refuge on his ranch, Paispamba, near Popayán. He was seized and taken to Bogotá, where he was tried and shot.

Caldas’ greatest scientific achievements were his discovery of the method for measuring altitude by the boiling point of pure water, his discovery of many species and varieties of cinchona, and his collaboration with Humboldt on the study of the distribution of plants according to altitude.


See Semanario de la Nueva Granada (corregido y aumentado con opúsculos diversos por Joaquin Acosta) (Paris, 1849).

Enrique PÉrez ArbelÁez

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Caldas, Francisco José De

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