Río, Andr

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(b. Madrid, Spain. 10 November 1764; d. Mexico City, Mexico, 23 May 1849)

mineralogy, geology.

Del Río was the son of José del Río and María Antonia Fernández. He studied at the Colegio de San Isidro in Madrid, distinguishing himself in the classics, then entered the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, where he studied experimental physics under José Solano, He graduated in 1781 and then continued his work at the Real Academia de Minas de Almadén under a subsidy from Charles III, who was attempting to bring Spain into the mainstream of western science. Del Río attracted the notice of Diego Gardoquí, the minister of mines, and through his interest received a further subsidy to study in the great intellectual centers of Europe. Del Río thus spent four years in Paris, where he studied first medicine and then chemistry (with d’Arcet). He next attended the Bergakademie at Freiberg, where he heard Werner’s lectures on mineralogy and J. F. Lempe’s on mining science and became a friend of Humboldt. He continued his studies at the Bergakademie at Schcmnitz (now Banňskà Štiavnica, Czechoslovakia) and at mines in Saxony and England. Del Río next returned to Paris and studied chemistry with Lavoisier. When Lavoisier was arrested and imprisoned during the Terror, Del Río fled to England in disguise.

In 1794 Del Río went to Mexico to take up a post as professor of mineralogy at the newly founded Colegio de Minería in Mexico City. The Colegio was the first institution of technical education in the New World; its graduates, who had completed a comprehensive four-year curriculum and a two-year apprenticeship in one or more mining districts, were to serve as inspectors of mines throughout Mexico, Central America, and the Philippine Islands. Del Río assumed his professorship in 1795; his Elementos de Orictognosia, the first textbook of mineralogy to be published in the Americas, was published in the same year and represented the first critical exposition of Werner’s system of mineralogy to be written in Spanish. Del Río’s course in mineralogy was the first formal instruction in the subject in the New World and he was largely responsible for introducing modern science and modern engineering methods into the mining industry of Mexico; Humboldt, visiting the Colegio in 1803, was favorably impressed by its students, its laboratory facilities, and by Del Río’s textbook.

When Humboldt left Mexico after this visit, he took with him a sample of the mineral vanadinite from Zimapán, Mexico, in which Del Río had discovered a new metallic element in 1801. He also took Del Río’s account of his chemical observations of it, for possible publication; this chemical description was, however, lost in a shipwreck. The new element was vanadium (which Del Río called panchromium or, later, erythronium). and Humboldt gave the sample to Collet-Descotils, who mistakenly concluded that it was the element chromium, which had been discovered in 1797. Although Del Río’s chemical investigation had indicated the distinct character of the new substance, he nevertheless accepted ColletDescotils’s evaluation, and claimed to be the first to discover chromium in the Americas. Nils Sefström subsequently found vanadium in magnetite from Falun, Sweden, and Wöhler demonstrated that it was identical to the material found in Zimapán. Del Río was accordingly resentful of having been denied priority in its discovery, and his friendship with Humboldt cooled. He had no better luck with other new minerals he described, for in every case they had been described previously by some other worker, or were later found to be a combination of already known minerals, or were never confirmed.

In the meantime, Del Río had become deeply involved in Mexican affairs, and took an active part in the scientific and cultural life of Mexico City. Following the War of Independence, he was named a deputy to the revolutionary Cortes in Spain, then returned to Mexico to take a small part in the masquerade imperial court of Agustin I (Itúrbide). When the republic was again in power, all Spaniards were expelled from Mexico; although Del Río was specifically exempted from the final ban of 1829, he nonetheless chose to go into exile, and went to Philadelphia, He remained there for five years, during which he participated in meetings of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and was elected president of the new Geological Society of Pennsylvania. Returning to Mexico, he resumed his teaching in the face of the almost insuperable difficulties imposed by the turbulent political situation; the Colegio had suffered from the prevalent instability and disorganization. and all of its facilities had fallen into a state of decay. Despite the ruin that surrounded him, Del Río continued to teach a few students, make new chemical analyses of minerals, publish papers, and revise his textbook. He did work on the origin of mineral veins, the paragenesis of sulfide minerals, and the effects of trace elements on physical properties and polymorphism. He also published critical comments on works by Karsten, Klaproth, Haüy, Breithaupt, and Berzelius. Del Río’s contributions to science were substantial in spite of the situation under which he worked, but conditions in Mexico allowed only a few of his students to continue in the field. Del Río was honored as a member of a number of learned societies, both in Mexico and abroad, but he died a pauper.


I. Original Works. Most of Del Río’s publications are listed in Rafael Aquilar y Santillán, “Bibliografia geologica y minera de la Republica Mexicana,” in Boletin del Instituto Geologica de México, 10 (1898), 101–102, and 17 (1908), 202–205. Several papers that he published in the United States are cited in J. M. Nickles, “Bibliography of Geology of North America,” Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey, no. 746 (1923), 878.

The most important of Río’s works is Elementos de Orictognosia, pt. 1 (Mexico City, 1795) and pt. 2 (Mexico City, 1805); and 2nd ed. (Mexico City, 1832–1846), with Suplementode mi mineralogia impresa en Filadelphia en 1832 … (Mexico City, 1848). Río also translated, with important additions, L. G. Karsten, Tablas mineralogicas (Mexico City, 1804), and J. Berzelius, Nueva sistema mineral … (Mexico City, 1827).

See also Río’s discussions of contemporary developments in mineralogy in “Carta dirigida al señor abate Haüy …,” in Seminario politico y literario de México, 2 (1821), 173–182, and “Ein Paar Anmerkungen zu dem Handbuche der Mineralogie von Hoffman, fortgesetzt von Breithaupt,” in Annalen der Physik, 71 (1822), 7–12.

II. Secondary Literature. The best general biography of Rio is Santiago Ramirez, “Biografia del Sr. D. Andrés Manuel del Río,” in Boletin de la Sociedad de Geografia y Estadistica Mexicana, 2 (1890), 205–251, and repr. separately (Mexico City, 1891). See also Arturo Arnaíz y Freg, Andrés Manuel del Río (Mexico City, 1936), repr. without illustrations in Revista de historia de America, 25 (1948), 27–68, which includes a list of documents relating to Rio in archives in Mexico and Spain.

The discovery of vanadium is discussed by Mary Elvira Weeks and Henry M. Leicester, Discovery of the Elements, 7th ed. (Easton, Pa., 1968), 351–364. Other helpful works include J. L. Amorós, “Notas sobre la historia de la cristallografía y mineralogía. V. La mineralogía española en 1800; La ’Orictognosia’ de Andrés del Río,” in Boletin del Real Sociedad Española Historia Natural, 62 (1964), 199–220; and “The Introduction of Werner’s Mineralogical Ideas in Spain and in the Spanish Colonies of America,” in Freiberger Forschungshefte, 223C (1967), 231–236; Modestó Bargalló, “Homenaje a … Del Rio …” in Ciencia (Mexico), 10 (1950), 270–278; and Walter Howe, The Mining Guild of New Spain … (Cambridge, Mass., 1949).

William T. Holser