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09 March 2020

Galdós, Novelist and Great Scientific Writer

Estimated reading time Time 5 to read

Although there have been literary figures that tried to underestimate the work of Galdós (some disparagingly referred to him as “el garbancero”, literally the chickpea seller, a term used to refer to an ignorant or uneducated person), for supposedly having a low literary level, many others consider him the greatest Spanish novelist since Cervantes. In fact, the colossal works by Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) are nearly all-encompassing: novels, theater, poetry, essays, journalistic articles, especially literature and history. But also, like Cervantes, “science” – good science. He could be considered one of the greatest scientific writers of the 19th Century. 

Benito Pérez Galdós. Source: The Critic

Galdós and the natural sciences

The main characters in some – many – of Galdós’ novels are people with scientific training. Especially doctors, but also engineers, geologist who demonstrate to be very up to date with biology, astronomy, geology, etc.  And all of this despite the fact that Galdós had not scientific training himself, as his studies were in law, and not very successful. 

In fact, the first chapter of “La Familia de León Roch” talks about the work of the main character in the novel, a geologist León Roch, entitled “Analysis of the plutonic terrain in the Columbretes Islands” in which Galdós, through Roch’s made-up writings, describes “the quaternary layers, pyrogenic and azoic terrain” in these islands, or volcanic rock as “syenite, sienita, pegmatite, variolite, amphibolite”. It is worth noting that the first scientific studies published on the volcanic origin in the quaternary of these islands located off the Castellon coast are from the 1880s, and this novel by Galdós is from the year 1878, which would indicate that he must have been very much aware of what was taking place in the geology field. And similarly, the characters in other novels reflect or lecture on various aspects of nature, such as plants and animals, the planets, the stars, etc. using the appropriate concepts and terminology. 

Islas Columbretes. Autor: JavierValencia2005
The Columbretes Islands have a terrain that is characterized by numerous craters and   volcanic chimneys. Author: JavierValencia2005

But without a doubt, of all the scientific developments that were taking place in the second half of the 19th Century in the natural sciences field, Galdós’ scientific characters mentioned Darwin the most. The publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 had enormous repercussions in Europe in fields ranging from politics and religion, and even in literature. However, due to its low level of scientific development and limited knowledge of languages, Darwin’s ideas made their way to Spain much more slowly. In the 1860s, only certain scientific publications were mentioned, and normally in a negative light. But in the 1870s, the liberal political changes that took place in the country following the reign of Isabel II and the appearance of several translations of Darwin’s work, allowed for the repercussions of the evolutionary, or  transformational ideas as they were called at the time to expand, to make their way into literature. 

In this field, Galdós, who must have known about Darwin from his reading and international travel, was one of the first to mention him in his work. Specifically in 1876, in Chapter 9 of “Doña Perfecta”, we witness a dialogue between the engineer Pepe Rey and the parish priest in Orbajosa, the conservative city where where the engineer goes to marry his cousin. The priest asks the engineer what he thinks about Darwinism. The engineer responds by saying that he cannot have an opinion on Darwin’s doctrines as he is barely familiar with them.  But then, using Darwin, Galdós ridicules the antiquated ideas prevailing in most of Spanish society because the priest says, “it all reduces itself to this, that we are descended from monkeys.” And later, in Chapter 11, he again ridicules the backwards ideas with the intervention by Doña Perfecta – the engineer’s aunt and his girlfriend’s mother – in which she accuses the engineer of reading books like Darwin’s that “say we have monkeys or parrots for grandparents” that have made him go mad. She continues to mention Darwin in contrast to the conservative and antiquated ideas in the rest of his works, even using key concepts from Darwinism like natural selection or survival of the fittest. 

Galdós and medicine

Countless doctors appear in the works of Galdós: family physicians, coroners, doctors at spas,  first-aid posts, mental institutions, etc. And his characters have countless diseases and physical abnormalities involving: digestive, circulatory, urinary, visual, infectious, and maternity disorders, as well as intoxication, deformities, trauma, cancer, etc. Then there are the illnesses related to the brain, such as: epilepsy, hysteria, psychosis, paranoia, etc. And he also describes with authority the signs and symptoms of each of them and how they affect his characters, including mental illnesses like neurosis, as well as syphilis, tuberculosis, etc.

The bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Credit: Janice Haney Carr, Dr. Ray Butler, USCDCP

Out of this combination of doctors, nurses and diseases, the way in which Galdós mentions the old methods of detection and his treatment of the latest advances is noteworthy. It is therefore possible to see how Galdós’ doctors, together with the clinical eye and auscultation start to use chemical methods. For example, to analyze breastmilk, in addition to sample observation against the light, he mentions chemical analysis with a device called a butyrometer that made it possible to determine the fat content using a method that was recently discovered in 1891 by the Swiss chemist, Nicklaus Gerber.

And to treat diseases, an old array of animal materials are used (cod liver, for example), as well as vegetable-based materials (arnica, henbane, marihuana) and organic and inorganic materials (phenic acid, oxygen, lead) dispensed in syrups, pills, tablets, brines, incense, etc. But Galdós’ doctors also start to refer to injections of caffeine, for example. And even though antibiotics and the microbial origin of some diseases had not yet been discovered, serums and vaccinations appear in Galdós’ writings. This is how Koch is mentioned, and his bacillus as the origin of tuberculosis, as well as the treatment with his “lymph” –something that was taking place in the 1880s. And for smallpox, he mentions Jenner’s vaccination, which was improving during this time. Or for surgical treatments like the amputation of a leg, which Tristana undergoes, chloroform is used to anesthetize her, as well as ether — medications whose anesthetic power, and calming power in the case of ether, was recently discovered. 

And in terms of the origin of mental illness, he clearly refers to the interaction of nature and nurture, and is not at all deterministic, emphasizing the role of education, or nutrition to try to alleviate them. And beyond the abnormal behavior of his characters, it is important to mention that Galdós attributed a significant role to certain psychological aspects, such as dreams, fantasies of split personalities, hallucinations, etc. over his characters’ behavior, therefore anticipating the ideas that Freud would later develop.

Self-portrait of Ramón y Cajal around 1876 while preparing for his doctorate in Medicine

Galdós’ profound knowledge of diseases and patients was likely related to his interest in observation and the direct study of people in their environment, to his interest in staying informed of medical publications, as well as nature in general, as demonstrated by the books in his library. And by the contact he had with prominent figures from the medical profession:  Marañón, Ramón y Cajal, Esquerdo, Madrazo… and above all, with the famous pediatrician and benefactor Dr. Tolosa Latour. In fact, the doctor who was omnipresent in his writings, Dr. Augusto Miquis, who appears in nearly a dozen novels from La Desheredada (1881) to the previously mentioned Tristana (1892), as well as the renowned  Fortunata y Jacinta (1887), which was based on Dr. Latour. 


It can therefore be said that Galdós was not “garbancero” in the least when it came to “science”. Instead, he was an accurate scientific writer, and many of his scientific ideas remain valid, as well as his values and literary, moral and even political achievements.  

Manuel Ruiz Rejón

Professor of Genetics at the Universities of Granada and Autónoma de Madrid

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