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The pioneering story of Dr. José Celso Barbosa
At Takara Bio, we believe that good science is built by knowing the past in order to excel in the present, and we work with great excitement to construct a better future. That’s why this month, we are delighted to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month by learning and sharing the history of Hispanic scientists who have contributed to building good science and paved the way for other great Hispanic scientists of the present.
Join us today and get inspired by the story of the leadership and pioneering work of Dr. José Celso Barbosa.
Dr. Barbosa was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico on July 27, 1857. He was the first Black and Puerto Rican individual to achieve several educational milestones in his country and internationally. In 1875, Dr. Barbosa attended the prestigious Jesuit seminary in Puerto Rico, as the first Black student. Being the first is not always easy, and Dr. Barbosa had to overcome both racism and the language barrier. Before joining medical school in 1876, he decided to study English at the Fort Edward Institute in New York. In 1877, he applied to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, known today as Columbia University Medical School, to pursue a medical degree. Although he had a mentor who had endorsed his application, the institution rejected his registration because they "decided not to receive students of color." This did not stop Dr. Barbosa’s determination to pursue a medical degree as he applied to and was accepted at the University of Michigan. And thus, Dr. Barbosa became the first Puerto Rican to graduate as a medical doctor in the United States and the first Puerto Rican student at the University of Michigan (graduating class of 1880).
Dr. José Celso Barbosa (1857-1921)
Impact on society
Upon receiving his medical degree, Dr. Barbosa returned to Puerto Rico where he worked as a doctor serving poor and Black communities. In addition to providing free medical care to his community, he was fundamental in formulating the concept of the private health insurance system by proposing that employers should pay a portion of their employees’ healthcare expenses.
Dr. Barbosa was committed to education. He taught natural history, anatomy, obstetrics, and midwifery at the Ateneo Científico y Literario and acted as under-secretary of education in Puerto Rico. He created the first cooperative in Puerto Rico (1893–1898), which helped people with living resources.
Besides his scientific and medical work, Dr. Barbosa was also active in politics. He led the fight against racism, publishing several articles on political and social reform, civil rights, universal suffrage, and republicanism. He also led the statehood movement and founded the Republican Party of Puerto Rico in 1899. From 1900 to 1917, he was part of the Executive Cabinet and, from 1917 to 1921, a member of the Senate.
Dr. José Celso Barbosa overcame racism, language barriers, and ethnic and political challenges, paving the way for other Hispanic and Afro-Latino scientists who came after him. For his important contributions to science and policy, his birthday, July 27, was declared a national holiday in Puerto Rico and his house was converted into a museum that is open to the public.
- Jose Celso Barbosa. American Latino History https://americanlatinohistory.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/jose-celso-barbosa/ (2015).
- José Celso Barbosa, 1880, HMA1903. Alumni Association of the University of Michigan https://alumni.umich.edu/notable-alumni/jose-celso-barbosa/.
- Thurber, D. Research Guides: World of 1898: International Perspectives on the Spanish American War: José Celso Barbosa. https://guides.loc.gov/world-of-1898/jose-celso-barbosa.
- Guzmán, W. José Barbosa (1857–1921). https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/jose-barbosa-1857-1921/ (2020).
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