1562 - ca. 1620

Brain and body

Pioneer advocate for the use of face masks for disease prevention, Oliva Sabuco: a brilliant mind from the XVI century.

Ahead of her time, and during the turbulent times of the Spanish inquisition, the 24 years old Oliva Sabuco wrote a direct letter to the king Felipe II in which she shared her medical and philosophical book ‘Nueva filosofía de la naturaleza del hombre no conocida ni alcanzada de los grandes filósofos antiguos: la cual mejora la vida y salud humana’ (‘A New Philosophy of the Nature of Man’). In her letter, Oliva asked the king to protect her piece, describing her work as extremely innovative, a book which included discussions on why we live, die, and get sick, as well as advice to avoid a violent death.

Her book was first published in 1587, and it soon gained fame. Among interesting topics from the book, we may mention Oliva’s pioneer arguments for the use of face masks. She stated that covering nose and eyes was key to prevent transmission of the plague. This recommendation was done in a time when it was not yet accepted that the plague was transmitted through the air.

Oliva’s medicine followed a holistic approach. She challenged prior philosophers, like Hippocrates, Aristoteles, and Galenus. She defended that the origin of the thinking was the brain, and stressed that the brain and the body were connected. She stated that the mental stage could affect the body stage, potentially resulting in illness or even death.

Moreover, Oliva defended that the characters from both the mother and the father were inherited by the offspring. Contrary to Aristoteles, who believed that only characters from the father were inherited.

Despite being admired by her contemporary peers and gaining fame at the time, Oliva’s name fall into oblivion.

Throughout history, her work has been questioned by historians who misbelieved that such a pioneer work could have been done by a woman. There were those who attributed her work to men from the time, like Simon Abril, despite the contradiction between Simon’s views and those stated in the book. Likewise, when a letter from Oliva’s father (Miguel Sabuco) claiming authorship of the book was found, many gave his letter much more credibility that other letters and manifests from Oliva as author of the book. However, many historians recognised Oliva as the author. Arguments to support this were the existence of letters, the mention of Oliva’s talents in writings from her contemporaries, and analysis of the book content.

Oliva Sabuco de Nantes Barrera touched philosophy, ethics, medicine, and politics and she is considered a pioneer and a brilliant mind from the Spanish Golden Age.

Written by: Enriqueta Vallejo-Yagüe.