Honoring the Life of Dr. Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano

Thursday, Jan 12, 2017

by Dr. J.V. Martinez, SACNAS founding member & past president

Bernado Ortiz de Montellano, a senior SACNISTA, and founding member of Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, succumbed to liver cancer on December 2, 2016. 

Bernardo was ever the scholar and humanitarian that brought distinction to the field of science by way of his research in Meso-American civilizations with focus on the Aztec as evidenced in his book, Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition (1990).

Education & Career

Bernardo received his doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Texas/Austin in 1965 and taught at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, the University of Wyoming and the University of Utah before joining Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan in 1976 from which he retired in 1998 to make his home in Austin, Texas. Although retired, he continued to share his knowledge by co-founding and lecturing often at Quest and other continuing education programs at the University of Texas at Austin. Not surprisingly, one of his lectures, “Cultures of Ancient Mexico: Olmec to Aztec” was one of the most popular ones offered.

Advocate for Culturally Relevant Science

Particularly notable was his contribution to a series of teacher workshops sponsored by SACNAS, “Teaching Culturally Relevant Science,” which attempted to fill the void for young Chicanos and Native Americans unaware of the presence of scientific thought in their heritage. The workshops were designed to help K-12 teachers encourage Chicano and Native American students to master science and mathematics and pursue STEM careers. The curricula included information on the Mayan mathematics concept of zero well before the Spanish Conquest and which Europe adopted with the introduction of Algebra from the Indo-Arabian civilization. Also included was information about the Aztec state-of-the art knowledge of astronomy and the chemical coating of gold on copper by the Moche Indians whose settlement was in what is now northern Peru. The latter was to the surprise of Spanish invaders who learned the gold was simply a coating, the objects were not pure gold. Considering that modern metal coating requires the use of electricity, this early development was nothing short of phenomenal.

Honoring a Legacy

Bernardo is survived by his wife of Ana of 50 years and two sons, Bernardo and Victor as well as four grandchildren. His more complete biography can be found at Wonderings.net/Bernard. The family requests that Bernardo’s memory be honored through contributions to the ACLU at https://action.aclu.org/secure/make-gift-aclu-someones-memory. Plans are to hold a memorial for Bernardo in January in Austin. Parties interested in attending are advised to contact Ana at aortizde-at-gmail.com.