Credit Where Credit is Due: Latino/as in Western Science Narratives

by Carolyn Gonzalez

 One of the most famous stories in the canon of Western medicine is that of Alexander Fleming. In 1928, Fleming left his laboratory for 2 weeks of vacation. By mistake, a petri dish with bacteria was left outside and became contaminated with a common type of mold. When Fleming returned to his laboratory, he realized that the bacteria was not growing around the mold. He isolated the mold and realized that it had valuable antibacterial properties because it produced a substance known as penicillium, and is now credited with ushering in the modern era of antibiotics.

 It’s a remarkable story, but there’s more to it. The healing potential of mold has been known for thousands of years – in fact, ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Indians used and even wrote about their practices with mold. Countries ranging from Russia to Sri Lanka used sources of mold as disinfectants and treatments for wounds. Developing medications from these molds was a gradual process. One of the key figures in this development was Costa Rican scientist Clodomiro Picado Twight, also known as “Chlorito Picado.”

 In 1923, 5 years before Fleming published his discovery, Picado recorded the effects of penicillium on plants, rather than on bacteria. There is no evidence that Picado discovered penicillin as a potential human medication (although he is well respected for his work in creating snake antivenom), but he is one of a long line of important Latino/a scientists and doctors whose contributions are overlooked for the contributions of European scientists.

 No single article would do justice to these many pioneers. For example, Carlos Juan Finlay was Cuban physician who first linked yellow fever to mosquitos, enabling the eradication of yellow fever from Cuba and Panama. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, a Puerto Rican-American pediatrician, spearheaded public health efforts for women and children in the United States and Puerto Rico. We need to actively seek out these stories so that we can not only celebrate these role models and heroes, but also look forward to more Latino/a representation within science.

Carolyn Gonzalez is a native of Rochester, NY of Puerto Rican descent. She is finishing her first year at the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry. She completed her B.S. in Biology and Society with a double minor in Policy Analysis and Management and Inequalities Studies from Cornell University in 2011. Her medical specialty interests include primary care and psychiatry. She is on the executive board of the school’s chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) who are committed to contribute educational articles relevant to the Latino community.