In the summer of 1782, Don Juan de Luna, a respected elder citizen of the City of Mexico, nearly choked on a lagartija, a lizard, when he ate it to ease the throbbing tumor on his tongue. The details are foggy, but he likely followed the protocol established by his medical counsel, the celebrated physicist, archeologist, and mathematician Antonio de León y Gama. If so, he hired indigenous residents to catch the creature, as they were known to effectively distinguish the venomous animals (Acaltetepon, in Nahuatl) from their “innocent” counterparts (Cuetzpalin). Only about a third of the known local lizard types were thought poisonous, so the odds were on de Luna’s side.
He probably hoped that the lizard was a tapayaxin, as Spaniards believed this to be the most medicinal variety. He was, it seems, quite sure that he had the right kind of lizard; perhaps his confidence came from performing the trusted test of squeezing the animal’s head, which — if really an innocuous tapayaxin — would squirt a thimbleful of blood two or three paces. An anatomical inspection was in order as well, for León y Gama warned that the females were untrustworthy and could secrete poison even when the variety was known to be benign. Best to stick to the males. De Luna probably hoped that the critter had not become too excited during its capture, transport, and imprisonment — all of which could upset the “animal spirits” and disperse its “volatile salts” — before preparing his simple remedy.1
De Luna took his lizard neat. León y Gama advised his Spanish patients who recoiled out of “horror, revulsion, or plain weakness” to mix the flesh with breadcrumbs and mold it into a pill. But de Luna knew well the underlying subtext that pervaded Spanish society in the colonies: there was nothing so embarrassing, so dishonorable to a Spanish male than to be bested by an “Indian” in fulfilling the ideals of manhood. Masculinity had been a cornerstone of Spanish theories of racial superiority since the conquest, so despite discomfort, de Luna would preserve his pride and “man up.”
He skinned the lizard, then sliced off its feet and head and tore out the viscera, tossing them to the cat, which probably found its share more appetizing than the man his. Straight up and raw, de Luna slid the slimy, boney carcass down his throat. This was not his first. De Luna had been taking them for days and, sure enough, he was certain that his tongue was feeling a little better. Perhaps with a few more, the whole business would be over and the tumor would go back to wherever it came.
Lagartijas and Nation
Across eighteenth-century Europe and its empires, lizards were an uncommon remedy, but by no means an outlandish one. Imported Egyptian reptiles were a prized aphrodisiac, and European lizards were believed a less volatile alternative to snake flesh for treating eye problems, warts, hair loss, and rotting teeth.2 But Don de Luna’s lagartija was something different. His information came by way of Guatemala, where an enthused Spanish physician published a pamphlet reporting that the native inhabitants of the village of Amatitlán had a miraculously effective cure for cancer.3
This “miracle cure” was just what Spanish elites had been waiting for. After nearly three centuries of unabated Spanish imperialism, buoyed by Papal legitimization and the extraction of unheard-of quantities of silver produced by forced labor, Spanish authority was entering an age of anxiety. By the eighteenth century, this wealth was gone, largely squandered on consumer imports, which served only to enrich Spain’s rivals. State bankruptcy was a constant threat. Then, for de Luna’s generation, Spain’s humiliating defeat by Britain in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) turned economic troubles into pained soul-searching: What went wrong with us?
Some answered this with calls for racial purification; just as common were denunciations of withered masculinity. Following English, French, and Dutch critiques, many Spaniards worried that their culture had become over-civilized, that they were dallying with effeminate tastes but missing the larger truths.4
Physicians weren’t immune to this unease; they channeled it into new, festering professional anxieties: What if, the colony’s foremost medical authority wrote, as we fuss with “our exquisite and tasteful discourses,” the Indians are “laughing behind our backs” as they effortlessly save themselves with simple cures?5 If they knew about the lagartijas, “what else might the Indians know about the virtues of plants and animals about which they have not wanted to tell us?”6 The medical profession itself was at stake.
The prevailing sentiment — at least among Spaniards in Mexico City — was that the empire had started off on the wrong foot, that when the Spanish conquistadors invaded the New World, they destroyed Eden. All that was strong, beautiful, and sage was lost, much like the Earthly Paradise itself. This was always a very paradoxical position, for these writers also universally admired the conquistadors’ well-proven masculinity, the apogee of Spanish character in their opinion. Their intellectual burden was to square this celebrated manliness with the newly-kindled admiration for the Aztecs of their imagination.
In any case, now the Spaniards needed a way to set the clock back, to start the whole project of empire over again — a second try. Perhaps there was still a way. If they could only tap the ancient wisdom of the Aztec, fancied the intellectual elite, and the perfect knowledge of nature held by the “wild barbarians” of the frontier, then they could overcome an age of ignorance and darkness with an empire of knowledge and light.
It was at this moment that the lagartija fell into their lap. “God willing,” announced León y Gama, “just as this discovery of the Indians has been propagated, New Spain will revive their [indigenous] herbal medicine!”7 It was the beginning of a half-century of fervent intellectual experimentation and titillating uncertainty about body and mind, health and spirit, climate and race. Before long, King Charles III commissioned a royal expedition to scour the countryside in search of indigenous secrets and the colony’s charity hospitals began conducting laboratory tests.
Different sectors of society, though, had disparate notions of what this all amounted to, this mismatched treasury appropriated from dozens of distinct medical traditions, this new pharmacopeia that would supposedly rescue humankind from its woes. Was it God’s love for humanity working through nature? The king’s magnanimity working through his empire? The scientist’s dedication to the public good made manifest?
It was not until after New Spain won independence (1821) that the final moniker surfaced: “materia medica mexicana.” A sovereign pharmacopeia for a sovereign nation! At the time, the ruling caste was trying to work out just what it meant to be Mexico. There were few precedents to work with. Mexican elites hoped that one day the population would be united in a sense of nationalism; for its citizens then, the nation needed to seem unique, special, and purposeful.8
A novel pharmacopeia fit the bill. The materia medica mexicana, explained a commission to survey the scene, was an autochthonous creation, a glorious unity of Spanish theory and Indian praxis. Holding this torch, Mexico would rise to its higher purpose, to “the good of long-suffering humanity, and to the honor of a nation that enjoys a soil so abundant in nature’s bounty, as it is in outstanding geniuses.”9 What would be more noble and profitable for a young nation but to be the world’s pharmacopeia?
Don de Luna’s Brush with Death
Meanwhile, de Luna’s experiment took a wrong turn. Immediately after swallowing the lagartija, terror struck. Looking over, he watched the cat licking the last lizard guts from its lips, but then instead of picking a choice spot in the sun, it started writhing in pain. For a moment de Luna was dumbstruck; then, like lightning, it all snapped together: dying cat, lizard viscera, lizard body, human consumption. In a panic his eyes flashed to the nasty glass tank he used as a terrarium and there, crawling along the edge, was a beautiful but poisonous emerald green blister beetle.10 Of course, the lizard had nothing else to eat and was feasting on noxious blister beetles!
His stomach sank, and he could feel it curling up like the cat. With but moments to save his own life, he ran to the cabinet and downed a purgative. Almost immediately, de Luna proceeded to vomit up the lizard that he had hoped would alleviate his pain, not take his life. In any case, the next day, in council with León y Gama, who was quite interested in what medicinal lizards might do for “the Patria” (homeland), de Luna relayed everything that had happened. Wisely, no doubt, but in a practiced, playful, modern manner, Leon y Gama intoned: Don de Luna, “you owe your life to that cat.” Luckily for de Luna, the cat was already dead, the debt canceled.
For more on the cure of the lagartijas, see Miruna Achim, Lagartijas medicinales: Remedios americanos y debates científicos en la Ilustración (Mexico City: Conaculta, 2008).
- Antonio de León y Gama, Instrucción sobre el remedio de las lagartijas nuevamente descubierto para la curación del cancro, y otras enfermedades (México: Felipe de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, 1782), 5–10, 18–20. Return to text.
- For instance, Estiènne-François Geoffroy, Tractatus de materia medica: Sive de Medicamentorum simplicium historia, virtute, delectu, & usu (Venetiis: Nicolai Pezzana, 1760), 321. Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis; or, the New London Dispensatory. In Six Books. (London: T. Dawks&Company, 1685), 249. Return to text.
- José Flores, Específico nuevamente descubierto en el reyno de Goatemala, para la curación radical del horrible mal de cancro : y otros más frecuentes (México: D. Felipe de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, 1782). Return to text.
- The outside critiques also had a strong streak of anti-Catholicism, with ornate ritual and esoteric superstition among the faults of the Spanish character. Return to text.
- Juan Manuel Venegas, Compendio de la medicina: o medicina práctica (México: Felipe de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, 1788), unpaginated frontmatter. Return to text.
- León y Gama, Instrucción sobre el remedio de las lagartijas, 3. Return to text.
- Ibid., 21. León y Gama’s associate and fellow lizard enthusiast José García de la Vega expressed the same sentiment. José Vicente García de la Vega. Discurso crítico sobre el uso de las lagartijas, como específico contra muchas enfermedades [&c.]. (México: F. de Zuñiga y Ontiveros, 1782). Return to text.
- The classic analysis of the components of nationalism is Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (Verso, 2006). Return to text.
- Academia Medico-quirúrgica de la Puebla de los Angeles, Ensayo para la materia medica Mexicana, arreglado por una comisión nombrada por la Academia Medico-Quirúrgica de esta capital, quien ha dispuesto se imprima por considerarlo útil (Puebla: Oficina del hospital de San Pedro, 1832), unpaginated frontmatter. Return to text.
- Blister beetles were actually thought to be powerful aphrodisiacs like lizards. The issue, so believed de Luna and León y Gama, was that the “volatile salts” of the lizard would react with those of the lizard, producing a poisonous compound. Return to text.