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Georg Kamel, botanist and pharmacist

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St Ignatius beanGeorg Joseph Kamel, born 350 years ago (21 April 1661), was a Jesuit missionary, botanist and pharmacist in the Philippines.

He established the first pharmacy in the Philippines, where the poor were treated for free. The genus Camellia was named after him in recognition of his botanical work.

Kamel was born in Moravia, now the Czech Republic, in 1661, and became a Jesuit in 1682. He arrived in the Philippines in 1688. He had trained as a botanicus et apothecarius (botanist and pharmacist), and he spent the rest of his life describing the taxonomy and systematics of Philippine plants and animals as part of his practice of pharmacy and medicine, in which he dispensed medicines made from local plants.

Kamel sent specimens of the local flora to leading British botanist John Ray and the London apothecary and botanist James Petiver. His first shipment of specimens, together with his book, ‘Herbs and medicinal plants in the island of Luzon, Philippines’, fell into the hands of pirates and were lost. He sent another volume of his work the following year. It was published as an appendix to Ray’s ‘Historia Plantarum’, and gained him international recognition.

With a broad interest in natural history, Kamel also wrote papers on birds, corals, fish, crustaceans, insects and fossils. He discovered the medicinal properties of what he named the St Ignatius bean (Strychnos ignatii) in honour of the founder of his order. The bean is known today as a source of strychnine.

Carolus Linnaeus renamed the Camellia genus from its original Thea in honour of Kamel, although it is unlikely that Kamel ever sent specimens of the plant to Europe, since he never went to China or Japan. The plant was probably first reported and described by a German physician who visited Japan in the 1860s.

The earliest British information on the plant was by James Petiver in a 1702 communication in the Transactions of the Royal Society.

Kamel died in 1706 and was buried in the first San Ignacio Church, which fell into ruin after the Jesuits were expelled from the Philippines in 1768. It no longer exists. UNESCO named the 300th anniversary of his death in 2006 among the important anniversaries of the world.

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