Jose Rizal as a medical doctor
Second Opinion

Jose Rizal as a medical doctor

Jose Rizal was no stranger to epidemics and quarantine. In 1888, as he was about to land in San Francisco from Japan en route to Europe, he was trapped inside the ship for six days. In 1889, the husband of his sister Lucia died during a cholera epidemic. In 1890, when he was in Paris during a massive flu epidemic in Europe, he mentioned that he had “a few minutes of headache,” hinting that he contracted a mild version of the illness.

Rizal may be a hero but his life was not out of this world. In fact, so much of his life would be quite familiar to us, and this includes his encounters with disease as a patient and especially as a physician. Like many of us who went through the gauntlet of med school, he struggled with his grades when he was at the University of Santo Tomas, with some biographers suggesting that he was frustrated over the old-fashioned curriculum, using one scene in “El Filibusterismo,” in which the students were not even allowed to hold the microscope as evidence.

He yearned for more and it was in the Universidad Central de Madrid that he would find the intellectual stimulation with extracurricular activities, at a time when Spain was torn between Liberal and Conservative movements. Thankfully, his medical school notebook has survived the test of time and thanks to Ambeth Ocampo, who took pictures of the actual notebook, I managed to see illustrations from this precious text, mostly dealing with severe cases—sarcomas and carcinomas, as well as surgical procedures. Curiously, in his notebooks, we see chloroform—an early anesthetic—being used as a verb: “chloroformizado.”

Did Rizal really study medicine to treat his mother’s eye condition, or was there more to it than that? We do not really know; like many of us, the decision to embark on a medical career is complex, and sometimes full of serendipity. Sometimes, it’s a matter of luck, in the same way that Rizal won an actual lottery with some associates.


In any case, Rizal was a family man; his parents and siblings (especially his Kuya Paciano) were heavily involved in his career. Beyond his famous treatment of his mother’s cataracts, his letters were filled with prescriptions for his sisters, nephews, and nieces.

Equally relatable to us, surely, whether as medical practitioners or human beings, are the disappointments and heartbreaks. As he wrote to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt in January 1895: “My exile lasts so long that I am beginning to lose hope of ever seeing myself free again someday. Everybody agrees with me that I do not deserve this fate, but here they keep me.”

Rizal was, by all accounts, an excellent and tireless ophthalmologist (albeit not the country’s first: a distinction held by a Dr. Joaquin Gonzalez who obtained his medical degree in 1878). He trained under the best ophthalmologists in France and Germany at the time—Dr. Louis de Wecker (who also trained Gonzalez) and Dr. Otto Becker. His clinical practice, first in Calamba and then in Hong Kong, was quite lucrative, and he was sought after even in Dapitan, with people traveling from abroad just to avail of his services. In five months, he earned P5,000, which was a very significant amount at the time.

What do you do during a layover? Most of us would probably just eat or try to sleep. But he managed to treat at least two patients in his few hours in Cebu on Aug. 2, 1986, when he was on his way to Manila from Dapitan.


He was also very resourceful. When he was in Dapitan, Rizal complained about the lack of supplies, and I’m sure many of our doctors to the barrios and municipal health officers today can relate to his lament:

“A man fell from a coconut tree, and perhaps I could have saved him if I had instruments and chloroform on hand. I perform operations with little that I have. I treat lameness and hernias with reed canes. I do the oddest cures with the means available. I cannot order anything for the patients cannot pay: at times I even give medicine gratis.”


In one letter, he even asked his family to buy him a dentistry textbook and some dental instruments. Because there was no one else in Dapitan to do it, he also assumed the role of dentist. He wrote about trying hashish “for experimental purposes”; surely, he also tried various other treatments in the course of his extensive travels.

Rizal ended up treating many patients for free. “I operate on three or five patients a week. Many are poor but some pay,” he told Blumentritt in 1894. One year later, he wrote: “I am overwhelmed with patients and I cannot finish many works I have begun … My patients are so numerous that I have to turn away some for not being able to attend to them.” And finally, in 1896: “I have patients from different islands of the Archipelago, Bohol, Panay, Cebú Luzón, Sikihod, Mindanaw, Negros.”

Rizal practiced medicine in ways that are very familiar to us but also very impressive and inspiring, especially considering the limitations of his era and his own circumstances.


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TAGS: Jose Rizal, opinion

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