Ignacy Domeyko was one of the most world-known Belarusians, a participant in the liberation movement in Belarus, the national hero of Chile, a world-famous scientist, mineralogist, the Rector of the University of Chile. He left a significant mark in many areas of human knowledge, such as mineralogy, geology, chemistry, metallurgy, geography, ethnography, botanics and zoology.
Ignacy Domeyko was born on July 31, 1802 in present-day Belarus, at Miadzviedka manor near Nesvizh, Minsk Governorate, Imperial Russia. He grew up in a large manor house. The Domeyko family held the Polish coat of arms Dangiel. Ignacy was raised in the family where the traditions of Polish borderland gentry had been profound and kept very much alive; he was raised in an atmosphere of patriotism and deep religiousness. The family ties were of paramount importance. His mother was Karolina Domeyko nee Ancut. His father Hipolit Domeyko was the president of the local land court. He died when Ignacy was only seven. Thus, it was his mother who exerted a big influence on the shaping of Ignacy’s patriotic and religious sentiments. When in his old age Domeyko had returned to his native country from the distant Chile, he expressed his deep gratitude for such upbringing to while praying on his mother’s grave. In spite of having been orphaned by his father, his childhood was serene and orderly. Ever since he was ten, he remained in the care of his paternal uncle.
Young Ignacy received a thorough education and was well-trained in the norms of good breeding. He enrolled in school in Szcsuchin when he was 8 years old. The school was run by the Piarist order; it represented a high educational level and prepared Domeyko very well to his university studies.
He enrolled in the Imperial University of Vilna (today’s Vilnius University) in 1816, for pursuing higher education. He studied mathematics and physics. In 1819, Domeyko joined a secret organization ‘Philomaths’, that promoted Polish culture and independence. The group read a lot of literature. Domeyko had been the youngest student at Vilnius University. Apart from his exceptional talents in the sphere of the exact sciences, he was also a gifted artist; he wrote poems, tried his hand at the school theatre, was sociable and enjoyed parties. He was lucky to have had the chance to attend the lectures conducted by the very best professors of his time. He studied under a famous Polish writer, physician, chemist and biologist Jedrzej Sniadecki and was a close friend of a great poet Adam Mickiewicz. In the year 1820, Domeyko completed his mathematical and natural science studies, referred to as philosophical at that time. Three years later in 1822, he successfully received a Master's degree in Philosophy. He was proud of this accomplishment.
After participating in the November 1830 Uprising, Domeyko had to emigrate first to Germany and then to France. In 1832, he enrolled at the School of Mining in Paris (Paris' École des Mines), France. A meritorious student, Ignacy enjoyed his classes. He graduated with a degree in engineering in 1837. He also studied at the Sorbonne and maintained his political engagements with Belarusians, Poles, and Lithuanians.
In 1823, the secret organization ‘Philomaths’, promoting Polish culture and the restoration of Poland's independence, was discovered and its members put on trial. For his activity in the Philomate society, young nationalist Domeyko was convicted and subsequently sentenced to a few years’ compulsory stay in the country, under police surveillance. In 1823–1824, during the investigation and trials, Domeyko and his close friend Mickiewicz spent months imprisoned at Vilnius Uniate Basilian monastery, and a year later Domeyko was released on house arrest. He then went on to work on his uncle's estate.
In the end, after participating in the November 1830 Uprising against Russia, in which Domeyko served as an officer under General Dezydery Chłapowski, in 1831 he had to emigrate in order not to face Russian reprisals, first to Germany and then to France. After his graduation from the Mining School in Paris in 1837, Domeyko was hired for a mining job in Bonne Fontaine, France.
In 1838, he emigrated to Chile after he was hired as a professor at a mining college named Coquimbo in La Serena, Chile. He also began working as a meteorologist and ethnographer. In Coquimbo he spent 8 years and began his activity as a teacher from erecting a school, preparing its syllabus and learning the Spanish language in which he was supposed to lecture. In 1844, he traveled for several months in the region of Auracania. The following year, he published a book “Auracania and its inhabitants” about the region. It was widely read and appreciated. In 1846, he resigned from his position as professor and moved to Valparaiso.
The following year, in 1847, he was hired to be a professor at the University of Chile in Santiago. Later, Domeyko was entrusted with the mission of reform and organization of higher education in Chile. He became a University Delegate. Honors and distinctions were showered upon him from all around; many scientific and academic societies offered him their membership (The Krakow Literary Society, the Society of Naturalists in Nuremberg, the Academy of Sciences in Krakow, the Society of the Exact Sciences, the Academic Society in Göttingen, the Philadelphia Medal and many others). He was encouraged to become a candidate to the post of deputy or senator.
In 1849, following a motion of the president of Chile, by a unanimous decision of the Congress, Domeyko was granted Chilean citizenship. Nonetheless, he proclaimed in an interview that he would identify himself as a Lithuanian for the rest of his life. The term "Lithuanian" at that time, however, designated any inhabitant, whatever his ethnicity, of the territories of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
In 1852, the educator’s German-inspired reforms of the educational system in Chile were implemented. The nation was very grateful. In 1867, he was promoted to the rector of the university. He would hold this position for the next 16 years (1867–1883). In 1882, in spite of having turned eighty and being already on government pension, he had, for the fourth time, been elected rector of the Chilean University. He accepted the post conditionally, as this proved to be the only way of putting an end to political conflicts between the other candidates.
In 1884, Ignacy returned to his homeland. He then went on a tour Europe. At that time he visited the Holy Land, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Rome where he had witnessed the ceremony of his son Hernán’s ordination to priesthood. Yet, most importantly, he also visited his birthplace in Lithuania. The return to his family home was charged with a specific emotional atmosphere. In spite of a very severe winters, Domeyko experienced the genuine warmth of the family home. Like never before, he was filled with inner peace and consolation.
The following year, he moved to his daughter's estate in Zyburtowszczyzna. He tried to recuperate his health. In 1887 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Jagiellonian University, in Kraków. In 1888, an ailing Domeyko returned to Santiago, Chile. On January 23, 1889, this famous scientist and ethnographer died in Santiago de Chile, Chile. He was given a state funeral.
Domeyko had been raised in accordance with the Lithuanian and Polish religious tradition. He was a man of profound faith. His Catholicism was natural. He was able to skillfully and unobtrusively combine faith and science. He committed his fortune as well as that of his captive Motherland into God’s hands. For him, prayer was not only a conversation with God, but it played an important role in preserving his own identity. It was thanks to his prayers in the Polish language that he did not forget his native tongue. In the beauty of nature, both Polish and Chilean, he perceived the work of the Creator. In the atmosphere of the church he was able to find consolation and inner peace. He supported very generously and extraordinarily his son Hernán who chose to follow the career of a priest.
He spent Christmas of 1843 in a mining village of Andacollo, not far from La Serena, which was known for its sanctuary devoted to the cult of Virgin Mary. It was already Domeyko’s twelfth Christmas spent away from his native country. At that time he wrote in his diary “I live on the other side of the world; there is no one I can speak Polish to... What I have learnt and am convinced about is that man cannot produce anything good of himself, unless he becomes strengthened in his faith and relies upon the word of God. The whole merit consists in the continual war which man must wage with himself and with his inclination towards evil. True wisdom is not of this world [...] That is why we should with all our strength try to grow in faith and ask God for it in the simplicity of our hearts, just as children ask their father for their daily bread, rather than waste our wisdom on vain human conclusions and inventions from which our soul grows numb and insensitive. The most certain means which serves to attain such faith, with the help of the Divine grace and mercy, is humility and love of one’s neighbor; it is a sublime and boundless love, the best example of which was given to us by our Savior who died for us and forgave His tormentors... It is this love which is the foundation of all virtues, an arm which serves us best in the fiercest fight against evil and against one’s own pride, the main cause of our miseries [...]. It is the good Samaritan who gives us the best example of what true love means: to see a brother in every man, to love even those who hate us.” Such thoughts were recorded by Domeyko in Andacollo, which reminded him of the Polish Częstochowa and the Jasna Góra monastery.
An important element of Domeyko’s identity was his daily prayer in Polish. In almost every letter to his friends, he referred to God and commended his future to Him. His daily religious practices constituted for him an important factor in maintaining his spiritual bond with friends and relations in his native Poland.
During his student years at Vilnius University, Domeyko was involved with the Philomaths, a secret student society dedicated to Polish culture and the restoration of Poland's independence.The main motto of the Philomates was: the idea of brotherhood, learning and virtue. Not only did Domeyko remain faithful to the above values, but he also passed them on to others with his own example, wherever his fortunes of patriot-emigrant, scholar-reformer of the American science and culture, as well as discoverer and explorer happened to cast him. He participated in the November 1830 Uprising, and was forced into exile in order not to face Russian reprisals. While staying abroad, Domeyko’s heart had remained in his native Poland; he longed for his motherland, continued to watch the events in Europe and at every moment of his life was ready to return, should his motherland need him. The longing after a free Poland and the companions of his patriotic youth was a dominant and permanent sentiment which had never been fully satisfied in Domeyko’s life. Even the Chilean landscape and natural sights, as well as the local politics had reminded him of Poland and Lithuania. He simply dreamt of Poland at the end of the world. “I like Chile, but I long for Poland” - in this very statement, Domeyko summed up the profound rift of his feeling.
In spite of his honorary Chilean citizenship, as a foreigner, Domeyko tried to steer away from political events: “So far, my whole policy in Chile has been: to spread education and defend it against skepticism and atheism. That is why, I expect to survive till the end, without falling prey to the obnoxious attacks of different political factions”.
Yet, all along he remained a careful observer of the current political scene. Due to his post as rector of the university, Domeyko maintained close relations with the subsequent presidents of Chile. Many of his students later occupied high posts both within Parliament and in the government. As regards his views on politics, this what he wrote in his letters: “Here in America, foreigners, even with the best of intentions, must stay away from political life and avoid taking part in revolutionary turmoil. One may serve and be of use to one’s country without the unnecessary noise. Genuine improvement in a society comes quietly, slowly and calmly; it grows in a natural way requiring patience and renouncement of one’s self-love”.
While in emigration, he glorified his Motherland. Helpless in the face of the divisions within the Polish emigré circles in Paris, Domeyko commended the plight of his country to God: “We should accept all these worries anxieties and humiliations with patience as a penance for the sins of our nation and our own [...] Whatever future has in store for us, whatever future awaits us, let the sacred will of the Highest Lord be fulfilled.”
Domeyko tolerated very well both physical and intellectual effort. The possibility of travel and exploration in the open terrain gave him wings. He was passionately fond of exploring and discovering the unknown. In June 1843, following his three-month long exploratory tour of Chile, this is what he wrote about his health in a letter addressed to a friend: “Never in my life have I felt so healthy and strong; it’s as if I have reached the snowy mountain tops and been able to breathe in the spring air by the melting ice, looking in your direction, to the other side of the Cordilleras. Having come back to Coquimbo, I have gone slightly deaf, but I hope that this is just a passing phase.”
In Coquimbo [La Serena], he began his activity as a teacher from erecting a school, preparing its syllabus and... learning the Spanish language in which he was supposed to lecture: “With all the unlimited trust which I had been endowed with, my only rule and obligation here was to stick to honesty and think of all possible ways and means which could contribute to my future students’ well-being [...] I have also tried to draw to me the less confident students; many of them expressed their surprise and boasted of this before their friends that I talked to them in such a way, as they did among themselves, as if I was not their professor. I had time and enthusiasm to do everything, including my own analyses and explorations, in search of the so far unknown types of minerals.”
In his letter of June 10, 1843, Domeyko revealed with what passion and enthusiasm he set about his work in the remote Chile: “Let me tell you that at the beginning when I arrived here, the one thing that incited me to life and work, was the love of science, a passion, maybe stupid and misguided to discover something new and thereby to become famous [...]. Now, it seems to me that I have been cured of this fever; firstly because I have gradually been able to see how stupid the learned of this world are, and secondly, how small and insignificant our science is, compared to even the weakest of faith.”
In his farewell speech to the students and professors of the High School in Coquimbo, he advised them “to be hard-working and above all, honest throughout their entire lives; I have always reminded them of the wisdom of the Creator, of our pettiness, the limitations of our reason, and the need of Faith.”
At the threshold of old age, Domeyko sums up the years he had spent in Chile: “In the meantime, the daily work here does not cease; in the course of the whole academic year which is now coming to a close, and I have already completed 41 such years over here, I have not missed a single lesson; not a single day has an illness or some other handicap detained me at home; I have also scribbled a lot to the local academic journals, as well as to those published in Paris, Krakow and Warsaw. There is time for everything when there is a will God’s blessing, and out of all the miseries which people complain of in this world, the only one I have not yet experienced is: boredom.”
Domeyko gained Chilean citizenship in 1849, but declared at the time that "I may now never change my citizenship, but God grants me hope that wherever I may be—whether in the Cordilleras or in Paneriai—I shall die a Lithuanian."
The Krakow Literary Society, the Society of Naturalists in Nuremberg, the Academy of Sciences in Krakow, the Society of the Exact Sciences, the Academic Society in Göttingen and many others
Philomaths, a secret student organisation
1816 - 1824
Biographical notes and studies present Domeyko as a man characterized by extraordinary features of personality: patriot, scholar, defender of human rights, traveler and explorer, and at the same time, a man of profound faith.
The feature which had won Domeyko numerous supporters, sympathy and universal respect was his altruism. A disinterested attitude in public activity, scientific and also charitable work had characterized his entire life, even at the those moments of his life which were difficult for him personally. He was sensitive to human misery and poverty and did not remain indifferent towards the needs of those who suffered. During his exile in Paris, and particularly during the many years of his stay in Chile, where his financial situation was much better, he offered disinterested, and often quite anonymous assistance. He even attempted to help young Chileans who had traveled to France to study there; he asked his Polish friends in Paris to offer assistance to the students.
In accordance with his decision, the revenue from the books and materials which were sold in Paris was to be spent on the activity of a charitable Commission of Emigre Funds.
Domeyko was a careful observer of the surrounding reality. He recorded examples of human behavior as well as various everyday customs. He accurately described the characteristic features of the representatives of various nationalities which he came into contact with, and especially the Latin Americans and Indians. He was sensitive to human misery, particularly as regards the plight of the poor and the suffering; he bent over the latter ones with sympathy and always offered them assistance.
Wherever he happened to be, he remained under the spell of the surrounding landscape. He left to us beautiful descriptions of nature, the earth, the skies, clouds, flowers and animals. His education and profession imposed on him a way of looking at the world through the perspective of geology. It was from this angle that he made his observations and described not only the mountains and valleys, but also towns and cities.
He was aware of the fact that in a sense, he was a fortune’s darling who had the privilege of travelling to the most distant places upon the earth. He wrote in order to portray and record the times which he lived in; he wanted to describe to his countrymen everything he had seen. He was a lover of knowledge who never ceased to learn.
Domeyko displayed an extraordinary physical stamina, perseverance, and even stubbornness in overcoming all kinds of hardships and setbacks; he tolerated very well long and tiresome journeys. He provided numerous examples of extraordinary courage: physical, intellectual and moral.
Quotes from others about the person
“Stanisław Tarnowski said about Domeyko in Krakow (1889): “In Domeyko there was nothing that would not clear and straightforward; there was nothing that would not be elevated . When receiving the honorary doctorate granted by the Jagiellonian University, he loomed to us as the embodiment of the most noble and healthy powers and emotions of his entire generation.”
Dr. Máximo Lira Alcayaga, the Ambassador of Chile in Warsaw, said in 1993, on the occasion of presenting a bust of Ignacy Domeyko – as a gift of the Rector of the University of Warsaw to the Chilean University: “His [Ignacy Domeyko’s] outstanding human and intellectual attributes, as well as his immense work and achievements in the sphere of science and service to the Chilean state, have turned Domeyko into a spokesman and advocate of the spiritual and cultural achievements of Europe, who took active part in the scientific and technological revolution of his times. It is these very attributes that had turned him into a great reformer of the American science and culture. It is to this wonderful representative of Polish emigration, a man who was able to overcome the drama of exile and the tragedy of his remote country, and turn them into creative work for his New Motherland, that we pay homage to today”.”
Domeyko married Enriqueta Sotomayor y Guzman in 1850. Together they had four children: Anna, Henryk, Hernan and Kazimierz. One of his sons became a Catholic priest and one of his grandsons became a monk.