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Pires, Tomé

1. Dates
Born: Portugal, before 1511 Beyond the knowledge that he has an apothecary, nothing is known about him before 1511, and he disappeared in 1522.
Died: China, after 1522
Dateinfo: Flourished (two dates give known period)
Lifespan: N/A
2. Father
Occupation: Pharmacist
He was the royal apothecary; after hesitation I have categorized him as apothecary rather than governmental official.
No information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: Portugal
Career: Portugal and Portuguese colonial society
Death: China (i.e., non-European)
4. Education
Schooling: No University
Certainly no university education.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Jew, Catholic
There is good evidence to think he was from a converted Jewish family. He conformed to Catholicism.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Pharmacology, Geography
His letter to the King of Portugal on drugs of the orient was almost the beginning of European knowledge of them.
His manuscript Suma oriental, on the geography, ethnography and commerce of the orient, unknown in his own time, portrays European knowledge of the East at the beginning of the 16th century.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Apothecary, Merchant, Government
The son of a royal apothecary, and an apothecary himself. Nothing else is known about him for certain before he arrived in India in 1511, as the king's factor for trading in drugs, with a salary. He clearly traded on his own hook also, and made himself wealthy within a very short time.
Albuquerque sent him to Malacca to assist the factor there and he was subsequently named registrar and checker at the entrepot there (again a salary). He went along as clerk on a Portuguese fleet to Java, and he appears to have owned some of the goods being traded.
In 1516, the Portuguese officials in India selected him to be ambassador to China on the occasion of the first Portuguese voyage there. He did eventually reach Beijing. Because of obvious Portuguese aggression, the Chinese imprisoned him and he never was seen again.
8. Patronage
Types: Government Official, Physician
Cortesao speaks of Pires going to India under the protection of two powerful men, Jorge de Vasconcelos, the director of the Casa da Mina e India (in effect the Portuguese administration of the new empire) and Dr. Diogo Lopes, the chief royal physician. There can be no doubt that Pires quickly won the approval and support of the most powerful men on the scene.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Pharmacology
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
  1. Armando Cortesao, "Biographical Note on Tomé Pires," in The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires, tr. A. Cortesao, 2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1944), 1, xviii-lxiii. The best source. T'ien-Tse Chang, "Malacca and the Failure of the First Portuguese Embassy to Peking," Journal of Southeast Asian History, 3 (1962), 45-64. This article is a nice eye opener for one accustomed to see only the Western point of view expressed.
  2. Harry Friedenwald, The Jews and Medicine, 2 vols. (Baltimore, 1944), 2, 430-3. M. Ferreira de Mira, Historia da medicina portuguesa, pp. 138-9.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. A. Cortesao, A premeira embaixada portuguesa a China, (Lisbon, 1945). _____, "A proposito do illustre boticairo Tomé Pires," Revista portuguesa de farmacia, 13 (1963).
  2. A. da Costa Torres, Breve noticia de Tomé Pires, (Lisbon, 1942)-- originally in Jornal dos Farmaceuticos.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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