Canned adobo and other S&T adventures
By Manuel L. Quezon III
October 11, 1995
…With the tremendous amount of money being spent by the government in its industrialization which is being handled by the NDC, there is quite a big field for you who are taking chemistry and chemical engineering to show what you can do for the Philippines. There are many projects and quite a lot of money to spend on different projects. It will be a great future for the Philippines if we can only get the right kind of men to run each project. But I am afraid that the projects are too many and too costly. For example, in the canning of food products, Miss Orosa, whom you know to be an expert in canned goods, is now being offered a position by the NDC with an increase of P200 a month over her present salary in the government and she still refuses to accept the offer with a very potent and sound reasoning. I understand that the NDC in its canning department has spent in goods alone, for example, in canned adobo and several other food products like cooked bangus, etc., around P200,000, and one of the impositions that Miss Orosa put out is to take those canned goods out of the market because it would only spoil their reputation if allowed to continue. This must be true because I understand Secretary [Benigno S.] Aquino bought four or five cans of adobo to be sent to his son who is studying mining engineering at Denver, Colorado, and before he sent them to the Post Office he was wise enough to open one of the cans and he said that even the dogs would not eat t. The adobo that we have been sending you are canned by Miss Orosa…The Caliraya project, which I do not know whether it is familiar to you, is an electric power plant to be developed by water and which can supply sufficient electric power in Manila and the surrounding provinces. This is going to be the main source of power for all the projects of the NDC. I understand they will start immediately a caustic soda plant in Caliraya. Now, that probably will be the beginning of our powder manufacture. From there we might develop the manufacture of sulfuric acid and the building up of smelter plants in the Philippines. With cotton which can easily be grown, we might be able to build up in the future some kind of ammunition plant, which is very necessary for our national defense.
—Gen. Vicente Lim
letter to his sons Luisito and Bobby, July 25, 1940
published in the book To Inspire and To Lead: The Letters of Gen. Vicente Lim, 1938-1942
IN HIS letter, Gen. Vicente Lim (the first Filipino graduate of West Point) wrote of the brave new developments in Filipino science and technology, which encompassed everything from the production of execrable canned adobo, to the setting up of a fish canning plant in Capiz (after the first one failed in Pampanga), to the first glimmerings of a modern textile industry (which met opposition from traditional weavers in Ilocos), the development of the marble industry in Romblon (again, after it had previously failed in the hands of private entrepreneurs), and the Caliraya Project and its ancillary industries. All of which—and this is noteworthy—were due to the government-owned National Development Company’s initiatives: efforts which, familiarly enough, were already tainted with allegations of political cronyism, the foolish waste of money, and incompetence.
It seems almost pathetic to look back and see what contemporary observers considered brave new efforts on the eve of independence; and while canned adobo would seem to be a poor showing indeed (science and technology-wise) for Philippine—and Filipino—scientific prowess, the fact that canned adobo was touted as a technological achievement provides clues that explain the backward state of our scientific capabilities, which persist up to the present.
Soon after formal independence was achieved in 1946, A.S. Arguelles, then director of the Bureau of Science, wrote glowingly on “Progress of Science in the Philippines,” which he generally accepts as having begun with the onset of the American occupation of the Philippines. This is not to say that the Spanish regime was a dark age when it came to scientific achievement (although very many people—perhaps even Jose Rizal himself: who has not laughed over the absurdities of the physics lesson presided over by an ignorant Dominican in the Noli?—would say that it came pretty close!); however most developments were in the areas of botany, zoology, metallurgy, geology, and observations of the weather (that good old Jesuit, Padre Faura). In terms of scientific progress in other fields that have helped usher in the Industrial Age, the Philippines remained an 18th century backwater.
Victor Buencamino, who helped establish the University of the Philippines College of Veterinary Science, supported Arguelles’ view. Buencamino wrote in the 1930s that the scientific age began when “a small building situated on the banks of the Pasig River was commandeered and the first laboratory of the Philippines was established with First Lieutenant R.P. Strong of the US Army in charge.” A Commission for the study of Tropical Pathology from the Johns Hopkins Hospital arrived soon after, signifying the thrust of scientific efforts in this new colony for the next decade and a half—to make the Philippines safe for Americans to live in (while, nicely enough, making it a more healthful place for the natives, too). As Arguelles put it, “We can state that scientific work in the first decade of [the] American regime was largely devoted to the control of tropical epidemics.” One of the first acts of the American authorities was to fill-in the malaria-infested moats of Intramuros—to the eternal gratitude of today’s golfers!
The makeshift laboratory of 1899 was improved and became a municipal laboratory and, by 1901, an independent Bureau of Government Laboratories upon the initiative of Dean Worcester. This eventually became the Bureau of Science. By 1906 scientific papers were already being written and published in the Philippine Journal of Science (which is still being published to this day under the auspices of the Department of Science and Technology). As it battled hog cholera, surra, amoebic dysentery, dengue, malaria, cholera, and smallpox, the bureau naturally found itself devoting its efforts to the creation of vaccines and the monitoring of public health and foodstuffs; the Bureau implemented the Pure Food and Drugs Act and aided the bureau of Health and the quarantine service.
Arguelles provides a list of the scientific achievements of the bureau in the technological field: the manufacture of vaccines and sera; the production of an extract of rice bran (tiki-tiki extract); the production of soybean milk; and the propagation of canning methods for fruits and vegetables (which, as we have seen, would culminate with the canned adobo of the 1940s!).
Scientific achievements of the health-providing sort were undeniably tremendous; at the end of his life Victor Buencamino wrote in his reminiscences that, as far as he was concerned, “The Philippines’ greatest contribution to the world of science” was the elimination of rinderpest, which first manifested itself in the wake of the massive importation of livestock that took place as a consequence of the decimation of the livestock population in the wake of the Revolution and the Philippine-American War. The rinderpest epidemic was reminiscent of the way hoof-and-mouth disease became a serious health issue recently. An aggressive drive to eradicate the disease began in 1906, which included the development, testing, and use of a serum to immunize animals: all of which was accomplished by Filipinos and Americans. The elimination of the disease was “a saga that took all of 30 years and one in which Filipino veterinarians took a progressively more important role as the campaign was intensified.”
It is well to note that an underlying motive—besides, of course, natural, humanitarian ones—can easily be detected when it comes to American efforts: after all healthy, happy Filipinos are happy, productive Filipinos; just the sort of people who would be vital, considering the goals of the next stage in scientific efforts, which Arguelles succinctly described as “the study of the different raw materials for industrial purposes and the exploitation of our natural resources.”
Arguelles lists the major achievements of science, in the period leading up to independence, as:
• “Publication in the Philippine Journal of Science of researches [sic] on sugar, tanning materials, industrial alcohol, vegetable oils… and other products”
• The establishment of cement factories, which “was also largely due to the pioneer work of the early scientists”
• Changes in the sugar industry, yielding more piculs per hectare “by means of better cultivation, fertilization, the use of improved seeds, and…the adoption of modern manufacture of centrifugal sugar instead of the old muscovado”
• The exploration “of a large part of our country for mineral wealth” by geologists and mining engineers.
• Exploitation of the forests, their trees and forest products, such as “commercial oils, resins, and tannins,” research on lumbang tree oil showed that this oil “has a composition quite similar to that of linseed” oil, which led to the establishment “of a Philippine paint industry” (and you wonder why Americans decided against the use of stone facings for public buildings, and decided that ordinary paint far “suited tropical conditions”); forest products also provided tannin extracts used for the production of leather.
• Research on Philippine vegetable oils which showed “the possibility of developing the edible-oil industr[y],” including the discovery that peanut oils and kapok oils are quite similar to cottonseed oil; perfume and flavoring extracts made from flowering plants (ylang ylang, champaca, lemongrass, and the like) was also looked into and,
• The “exploitation of ocean resources, including sponges and seaweed.”
Quite a list of accomplishments—and those are just the ones that resulted in tangible, commercial benefits. A quick survey of the titles of scientific papers being written at the time—in the 1920s and 1930s—which appeared in the Journal of Science, demonstrates that behind the scenes, Filipino and American scientists were quite busy doing original research and experimentation, too:
• in 1922 (May), Janetosphera, a new species of Volvox, by Walter Shaw; Extraction of copra cake with solvents by AP West and JM Feliciano; (in July) Manufacture of certain drugs for the treatment of leprosy, by Granville Perkins, Manufacture of industrial alcohol and alcohol motor fuel in the Philippine Islands by Howard Irving Cole, and The use of sulfur fumes in copra drying, by AH Wells and GA Perkins;
• in 1926 (Jan. Feb.) Dengue: Its history, epidemiology, mechanism of transmission, etiology, clinical manifestations, immunity, and prevention, by Siler, Milton, and Parker Hitchens;
• in 1933 (Feb.) Serologic study of cerebrospinal fluids in Philippine monkeys inoculated with yaws, syphilis, or both, by Onofre Garcia, An arthropod associated with a chronic dermatitis of the face, by Candido Africa; and, (May, at the time the final independence efforts were getting into high gear) Study concerning rat-bite fever in Manila, Philippine Islands by Schöble, Hirano, Vazquez-Colet (first name, Ana: enter the Filipina scientist!), and Arima; Solar ultra-violet radiometry: III, Comparative values for Manila and Baguio, P.I., by Wm. Fleming.
Busy as scientists undoubtedly were, the reader will perhaps notice the absence of scientific investigations into the sort of things an independent country would need: physics, metallurgy, engineering, chemistry of a sort more advanced than that geared towards the production of alcohol (made from—of course!—that great export product, sugar).
The answer lies in the state of the Philippine economy at the time—an economy geared towards the production of raw or semi-processed materials meant for exportation abroad, and the importation of advanced machinery and finished products from abroad. Science continued on the path originally laid out by American soldiers at the turn of the century—towards health and sanitation, the exploration of the countryside and the discovery of new creatures, and scientific exploration for commercial purposes suitable for a colony.
Filipino politicians belatedly made an effort, during the Commonwealth period, to force the pace of industrialization. This included feeble attempts at fostering scientific research and the development of new technologies. These efforts quickly bogged down in a morass of contradictory or half-hearted programs and political infighting: handicaps that plague us to the present day. Arguelles noted (in the 1950s!) that “Although there is a general enthusiasm for scientific work yet considerable difficulty is encountered when funds are requested for research projects. This may largely be due to the fact that research in the various branches of science is not readily understood, unlike projects for roads and bridges the importance of which is obvious.”
Combined with two other factors—that American scientists who played a prominent role in scientific developments could look forward to advancement in the US if they did well in the Philippines, and thus had a positive incentive (while gifted Filipino scientists languished due to official neglect), and that four decades’ worth of accumulated scientific equipment went up in smoke during the Second World War—it isn’t difficult to understand why scientific breakthroughs did little to advance the Philippines toward industrialization, with its vital underpinnings in advanced scientific and technological progress.
The irony is that Filipinos themselves have demonstrated that they are as gifted as any other nationality in terms of potential and actual achievements. Engineers at Elitool (which produced M16s under license during the Marcos era) made refinements to that automatic rifle which improved its performance—which were adopted by the parent company without any acknowledgment or an agreement to pay royalties to the Filipinos involved. Star columnist Antonio Abaya recently recounted that the head of the Malaysian aerospace industry told him that the Philippines could have built its own planes much earlier than Malaysia did—Filipino engineers, the German-trained Malaysian said, were far more advanced than their Malaysian counterparts. Besides the much-touted achievement of having invented the moon buggy, Filipino scientists are employed as nuclear power plant engineers…but they are employed abroad.
Simply put, Filipino science never managed to make the big shift, from its early concentration on a raw material-exploiting orientation, towards serving the needs of an industrialized economy. Handicapped by a lack of positive, sustained government support, prey to pointless efforts, such as Marcos’s dreams of a space program—which led to the stock-piling of volatile rocket fuel on an island near Corregidor, the discovery of which caused something of a panic among Roxas Boulevard residents a couple of years ago—and the brain drain, it is a miracle that any dedicated scientists remain in this country at all.
The sad decline of Philippine efforts in science and technology is readily apparent in the way the country has lost its edge even in the areas of excellence that were its colonial heritage. The Rice Institute at Los Baños was the Mecca of agricultural experts for decades, and produced graduates like the Thais who have increased their harvests tremendously…while the Philippines undergoes a rice shortage. The sad fate of the nata de coco industry is another depressing example of how we’ve been overtaken by our neighbors.
Things are so bad, it seems, that a former science writer for the Inquirer, the (admittedly, rather eccentric) Pio Andrade Jr., suggested (at the time when the US bases treaty was up for renegotiation during the Aquino administration) that the bases should be leased out not just for money, but also in exchange for “slightly dated scientific instruments which are just being junked by the state universities to equip a new Philippine school for science and technology… which is so sorely needed…[And] a science program whereby American engineering and science professors are sent on their sabbaticals to the Philippines to retrain engineering and science faculty of Philippine universities…’
A loony-sounding proposition? Yes. But it is a sign of the depths to which scientific and technological capability in this country have sunk. A tradition of steady, respectable work is in danger of extinction.