Tombstones for a Science Laboratory

Tombstones for a Science Laboratory

Public health was one of the primary concerns of the American colonials when they took over the political reigns of the Philippines at the dawn of the twentieth century.  Act No. 156 of the Philippine Commission was passed in 1901 to establish a biological and chemical laboratory with library facilities to answer the scientific and research investigation needs of the different department and bureaus established.   Thus the Bureau of Science was organized in 1901.  A building to house this government office was designed along the California mission style by the Insular architect Edgar K. Bourne.  The building constructed in 1902 was located  along Calle Herran in Ermita, Manila, at  the old  Spanish Exposition Grounds of the nineteenth century.  The 11 hectare land would later become the site of this bureau as well as the Philippine General Hospital and the University of the Philippines’ College of Medicine and Surgery.  Neighbors to  it were the Jesuit Observatory and the Assumption Convent.

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Old Postcard of the Bureau of Science and Insular Laboratory

While the establishment of a new Bureau of Science building was laudable in the light of effecting stricter measures to promote public health, hygiene and medical research, its construction caused a furor among veterans and relatives of American soldiers who died in the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War here.  Dead American soldiers from both wars were laid to rest at the old Paco Cemetery.  A public subscription thus ensued to provide the required tombstones made of Italian granite and which later found their way erected in Paco cemetery over the graves of the dead soldiers. Time came when the  bodies were repatriated to the United States and the tombstones served no purpose anymore.

Then superintendent of the Paco Cemetery, John C. Mehan, argued that he had all the tombstones sold in a public bidding because these served no purpose anymore.  He added that the common local cemetery policy was to auction off tombstones when the cemetery lease was not renewed by the relatives of the deceased after three years.  He was denounced for his action because the tombstones were publicly argued as the symbol of and memorial to  the soldiers’ bravery and heroism and the result of public money generously donated for the purpose.  To step on the “tombstones” which later were re-finished to serve as a shiny pavement veneer to the science laboratory was a sacrilege to the soldiers’ memory.

Thus, the Bureau of Science building became the object of mixed admiration and vilification from the American public when it was constructed.  The issue faded as the building’s science laboratory gained fame as one of the best equipped in the world and a leader in scientific research.  On one hand, John C. Mehan was assigned as Park Superintendent in charge of Manila’s Jardin Botanico, which was the city’s first combined botanical and zoological garden.  It was later renamed after him — thus, the appellation of Mehan Garden.

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 Entrance to the Jardin Botanico, late 19th century

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Old Postcard of the Mehan Garden

The Mehan Garden is now the site of the city of Manila’s Park and Ride Terminal, the Universidad de Manila Campus and the Bonifacio Shrine. Few people know of the man behind the site’s old name and how he figured in a controversial clash regarding the soldier’s tombstones and memorials that paved the august halls of the old Bureau of Science building.

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