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JUAN IGNACIO MOLINA (1740-1829)


“For his time, however, he was an eminent man.”  That was Alexander von Humboldt’s appraisal of Molina as a naturalist (Ronan 2002, 194); if it is faint praise, it is probably a useful corrective to the more laudatory assessments that came later.  The usually hard-headed Elliott Coues, for instance, calls Molina’s Saggio sulla storia naturale del Chili a “celebrated work” and Molina a man “famous in the annals of South American Ornithology” (Coues 1878-79, 244). All that may be true, yet his fame rests on slender evidence: Only thirty-four pages of the book are devoted to birds, and the list of species described by Molina totals only thirty-three. The limitations of his work are best understood by recalling the handicaps under which he worked. Molina was born in central Chile and entered the Jesuit order at the age of fifteen as a novice. By 1763 he was teaching school, as well as studying the botany and zoology of the area where he lived. In 1767 his progress was halted when the Jesuits were expelled from Chile; he was deported to Spain, his notes and papers on natural history confiscated. After a period of unpleasant wandering he finally settled in Bologna, where he spent the rest of his life.