Stories of the Great Chemists

A <i>Vida Ilustres</i> comic about Lavoisier depicts the scientist identifying constituents of air through experiments on combustion. At right, Lavoisier shares his discovery with an audience.

A Vida Ilustres comic about Lavoisier depicts the scientist identifying constituents of air through experiments on combustion. At right, Lavoisier shares his discovery with an audience. (Othmer Library of Chemical History, CHF)

About 50 years ago in the small town of Ataco, Colombia, 10-year-old Manuel Patarroyo discovered Louis Pasteur—in a comic book. His father gave him the small booklet describing the life and work of Pasteur that included the story of the scientist’s creation of a vaccine against rabies, a terrifying disease. That comic shaped Patarroyo’s future. While other children dreamed of becoming policemen, firefighters, or pilots, he yearned to become a scientist. “I did not want to do anything different than what Pasteur did,” he recalled decades later in an interview. Even after gaining worldwide attention for developing a malaria vaccine in 1987, Patarroyo still remembered the influence of the colorful little story of a chemist in a comic book.

Puerto Rico–raised José G. Rigau-Pérez, a physician, epidemiologist, and retired captain in the U.S. Public Health Service, remembers reading some of the same Spanish-language comics as Patarroyo, including the one on Pasteur. He also has vivid memories of a comic about Nikola Tesla, its cover dominated by a huge spark between towering electrodes, and another about Evangelista Torricelli—“the most unforgettable cover”—with Torricelli holding a barometer as a lady in baroque dress leans over to kiss him.

The vivid accounts of Patarroyo and Rigau-Pérez are a testament to the special hold such comic books had on young children in Latin America. The Vidas Ilustres series first appeared in the 1950s, published in Mexico City and distributed across Latin America and Spain. Individual comics featured chemists alongside a wide array of well-known historical figures, such as Rembrandt, Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Sigmund Freud. Another series, Mujeres Célebres, featured Marie Curie and other female doctors and scientists. The Nobel laureate French-American surgeon Alexis Carrel appeared in the series Vidas Ejemplares, which presented saints and other Roman Catholic heroes.

These comics, wrapped in garish covers that imitated movie posters of the era, were printed on inexpensive stock. They offered children a glimpse into the lives of famous scientists, along with explanations of basic scientific concepts, such as the conservation of mass and states of matter. Presented in the same format as funny animals and superheroes, these historical figures delighted and informed Spanish-speaking children from the 1950s to the 1970s. Chemistry’s past, illustrated for children, was thus popularized and became part of Latin American mainstream culture. Vidas Ilustres was published by Editorial Novaro, which by the early 1960s had become the world’s largest Spanish-language publisher of comic books, even setting up a permanent office in Spain. Yet the company’s global presence and size did not make it immune to market pressures. Increased competition in the 1970s, the Mexican economic crisis of 1982, and changes in entertainment trends all took their toll. The publisher shut down its operations in 1985.

To modern readers some scientific descriptions may appear imprecise and some historical perspectives are outdated, but the comics still offer an unusual window on the past. They remind us that 50 years ago thousands of children on several continents—of their own volition, outside of the classroom—were reading detailed accounts of scientific heroes like Davy, Torricelli, Lavoisier, Pasteur, and Paracelsus (the earliest of the chemical heroes). The comic-book writers often emphasized a scientist’s childhood experiences as a way to connect with young readers. But even when the writers devoted many pages to personal narrative and emphasized the dramatic, they did not avoid the technicalities of science. They succeeded in bringing to life the excitement of scientific experimentation and discovery, and highlighted the public recognition given scientists for their contributions to society.

Danger and violence animate many of the stories, especially on the covers: Tesla’s huge electric sparks and Davy’s mine explosion (the kind of accident his safety lantern would in time prevent). On the cover of one comic Lavoisier stands steadfast and dignified, a prisoner of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, prepared to surrender to the glistening blade of the guillotine. Inside, a summary of his life and death is titled “An Immortal Mind.”