Category: Basque science

July 5, 1846: Birth of mathematician Zoel García de Galdeano

On July 5, 1846 Zoel García de Galdeano y Yanguas was born in Pamplona-Iruñea. In later life, he came to be regarded as a champion of modernizing mathematics in the Spanish state according to the latest developments in Europe and beyond.

Zoel García de Galdeano y Yanguas (1846-1924)

After García de Galdeano’s father was killed while on active service in the Spanish military, he was raised by his maternal grandfather José Yanguas y Miranda (1782-1863), a historian, jurist, and well-known figure in Navarrese political life in the first half of the nineteenth century, promoting a kind of pro-foral liberalism. The young García de Galdeano was thus raised in a learning environment receptive to new ideas. In 1871 he obtained his doctorate and thereafter began a lengthy professional journey teaching math at several high schools throughout the Spanish state as well as promoting the so-called free institutes (experimental secular high schools that emphasized liberal values such as civic responsibility and modernization in its various guises). At the same time, he published voraciously with the aim of introducing the latest European mathematical currents into the peninsula.

Finally, in 1889 he obtained a tenured professorship in analytical geometry at his alma mater, the University of Zaragoza, where he worked until his retirement in 1918. Once established at the university level, he began lobbying to provide more adequate networks and platforms for sharing and disseminating mathematical knowledge.  In 1891 he founded El Progreso Matemático (Mathematical Progress), the first strictly mathematical journal published in Spain; and he was the first mathematician in the state to begin attending international conferences on a regular basis. Most significantly, García de Galdeano was present at the famous 1900 speech of influential German mathematician David Hilbert at the Sorbonne in Paris, in which he posed a set of problems that to a large extent came to define the direction of the discipline through the twentieth century. Moreover, he was one of the main figures behind the creation of the Spanish Mathematics Society in 1911, and became its president in 1916.

He died in Zaragoza in 1924, having played a critical role in modernizing the study of mathematics in the peninsula.


January 23, 1921: Birth of influential chemist Josefa Molero

On January 23, 1921 Maria Josefa Molero Mayo was born in Izaba, Navarre. She would go on to be an important figure in chemical kinetics and analytical techniques in gas chromatography as well as an important influence on scientific research in Spain.

Born in the picturesque village of Izaba, high in the Erronkari (Roncal) Valley of Navarre, Molero faced a number of hurdles early on in her career. As well as the inherent prejudice against women in professional positions that was a feature of the Franco dictatorship in Spain at that time, she was also from a family that had opposed Franco’s rebels during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and had to live with that stigma and discrimination in the aftermath of the war. Despite all this, she graduated from the Central University of Madrid with excellent grades in 1942. When it came to starting her doctorate, after initially being rejected from joining a research institute in Madrid on the grounds that she was a woman, she was later offered a place at another research center in the city, obtaining her doctorate cum laude in 1948, earning a special award for her work on applications of mercury electrodes in the process.

She then secured a position at the prestigious Rocasolano Institute in Madrid, and from there managed to secure an important grants to go to Oxford, where she worked in the laboratory of Sir Cyril Norman Hinshelwood, who a few years later would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1956 for his research into the mechanism of chemical reactions. On her return, she used that experience to create the first gas chromatograph in Spain as well as a whole new field of research at Spain’s Institute of Physical Chemistry: Pyrolysis and oxidation gas-phase reactions in organic compounds at low temperatures.  She also set up a department of Chemical Kinetics, which she headed until her retirement in 1986. In 1959 she was a visiting scholar at the University of Sheffield in England, where she worked with George Porter (who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1967) on light chemical reactions. On her return, she put a lot of this experience into practice, pioneering the study of chemical reactions produced by  chromatography in liquid gasses at the Spanish state level.

She won numerous awards throughout her life and was an important figure in establishing important research in key fields of Chemistry in Spain. She died at age 90 in Madrid in 2011.  In May 2013, the city of Pamplona-Iruña designated a Josefa Molera Mayo Street.

P.S. It is interesting to note that the village of Izaba was also the birthplace of renowned Basque physicist Pedro Miguel Etxenike (b. 1950).

Information taken from Uxune Martinez, “Josefa Molero Mayo (1921-2011): Izabatik kimikaren historiara,” Zientzia Kaiera.