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A century of Philippine science

By Queena Lee-Chua
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 08:57:00 07/28/2008

Filed Under: Education, Science & Technology

As National Science And Technology Month comes to a close, it is but fitting that we pay tribute to the pioneers of science in the country.

The Centennial Edition of the Philippine Journal of Science (PJS) traces their efforts through the years, starting from more than a century ago, when the first issue appeared in January 1906.

?[The researchers] laid the groundwork for forward-looking scientific research in the Philippines that has once set the standard in the region,? says editor in chief William Padolina, former secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). ?The catalogue of pioneering studies [in PJS] mirrors their peculiar insights, sparkling suppositions and original vision. Many of the over 1,300 papers remain valuable and authoritative references for international researchers today.?

The finest papers have now been compiled into the PJS Centennial Edition, published by the Science and Technology Information Institute.

Coconut oil

Our local coconut industry began in 1642 when each Filipino was required to plant 200 trees to produce coconut husks for rigging of galleon ships. Coconut production expanded rapidly at first under American rule, but pressure from the rise of the competing soybean industry in the United States relegated the palm to a minor role in world trade.

?The status of the industry is reflected in the papers published in PJS,? says chemist Fabian Dayrit, dean of the Ateneo School of Science and Engineering. More than 80 papers on the coconut alone have been published in the journal, making it the most covered subject. Topics range from production of the oil itself (rancidity was a constant problem) to studies of byproducts like nata de coco.

Health is also an issue. ?During the 1980s, coconut oil became the target of a strong campaign in the US against the consumption of ?saturated tropical fats,?? Dayrit says. ?Very few Filipino researchers were able to produce research which could prove the positive health benefits of coconut.?

But Clara Lim-Sylianco and her team found out that the meat, oil, milk and water of the coconut have possible anticancer properties. Today, the health benefits of coconut oil have been recognized, though Dayrit concludes that ?the pool of experts is small, and more effort should be given to expand and sustain it.?

Natural products

More than half of cancer drugs today come from natural products. ?Seven out of 10 antimigraine drugs, 48 of the 74 antihypertensive drugs, 70 out of 90 antibacterial drugs, and two out of 23 antifungal drugs are also based on natural products,? says chemist Concepcion Ragasa of De la Salle University (DLSU)-Manila.

Our country is rich in plants with therapeutic properties, and the PJS contains articles that discuss the efforts of scientists here. For instance, tiki-tiki can cure beriberi, and lagundi can relieve cough symptoms.

Beriberi results from a diet that lacks vitamin B. In 1921, a chemist at the Bureau of Science in Manila remarked that Filipinos ate a lot of rice, but most of the rice was made white by the removal of the pericarp layer. Too bad, since this layer contained the polishing, or tiki-tiki, that could cure the disease. Tiki-tiki oil is now sold in drugstores, and hopefully, beriberi will soon disappear altogether.

In the 1980s, local researchers began studying the healing properties of the lagundi plant, and they found that chemicals in its leaves could relax the trachea of a cat. Lagundi was found to be effective in suppressing coughs, and tablets are now available in the market.

PJS records that saline solutions to combat cholera have already been used way back in 1909. They are now standard in dextrose administration. Scientists then also studied the use of insulin for diabetes and, to my surprise, even researched treatments for dengue?which is still raging today.

Parasitism is also still endemic. ?The identification of intestinal parasites and hookworms among Igorots in Baguio City and in [others] way back in 1910 and 1934, along with today?s reports of the high prevalence [of these parasites], implies the failure of government and its support agencies to address parasitism in the country,? says DLSU-Manila biologist Florencia Claveria.

I was honored to review a century?s worth of social science articles in the PJS, though they were sparse compared to the physical sciences. In the early 1900s, many of the articles were ethnological and anthropological, on tribal figures, implements, dialects. Some articles were sensational, like an account of a deaf and blind slave boy killed in a sacrificial ritual.

Filipino customs

However, I commend the scientists for their painstaking recounting of Filipino customs to ensure that they are not forgotten. The customs include the harvest feast of the Kianga Ifugaos, an archaeological trek of ancient caves in Masbate, a detailed list of Mangyan terms.

The best astronomy, energy and biology articles (in their original form) can also be found in this special work. The Centennial Edition of the PJS is recommended not just for libraries and science groups, but for anyone who is curious about the evolution of Philippine science.

To order copies of the PJS, call Judith Lagarde at the Science and Technology Information Institute at 8377520 or e-mail jlagarde@stii.dost.gov.ph.

(Queena N. Lee-Chua is a professor of mathematics and psychology at the Ateneo de Manila University. E-mail her at blessbook@yahoo.com)

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