A woman who used chemistry to subvert
imperialist industries using her island's resources, building a bridge to
self-sustainability for her people
María Orosa, born Nov. 29, 1892 in Taal, Batangas, grew up amid the tensions of the Philippine-American War. Her parents, father Simplicio Orosa y Agoncillio and mother Juliana Ylagan-Orosa, joined the resistance—first against Spain and then against the United States. Simplicio, a steamship captain, secretly transported soldiers and supplies. The couple’s eight children, of which María was the fourth, witnessed their parents’ resistance efforts.
What Filipinos viewed as a battle for their independence, the United States considered an insurrection.
Around 1900, when María was eight or nine years old, Simplicio retired from his captaincy. In retirement, he and Juliana opened a general store. This store was short-lived, however. The Philippine-American War officially ended on July 2, 1902, in a United States victory, and U.S. occupying forces flooded the country, including Taal, Batangas. The family soon moved to evade their oppressive and often violent presence.
This departure itself raised suspicion. Simplicio was detained as a political prisoner and died soon after. These early experiences inside her country’s fight for independence irrevocably changed young María Orosa.
María studied for one year at the University of the Philippines before, with government sponsorship, transferring in 1916 to the University of Washington in Seattle. There, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry, as well as a second bachelor’s degree in food chemistry. During the summers, she made money working in Alaskan fish canneries where she also gained greater understanding of the process of canning. She was eventually hired by the Dean of the Pharmacy School to work as an assistant chemist in the Food Laboratory during the school year.
In a letter to her mother, she acknowledged the rareness of this. “Here in America, it is very difficult to obtain the kind of job I have just been offered and accepted,” she wrote. “Before they offer to a person of color, such as Filipino, Japanese or Chinese, the jobs are first offered to whites. So, I am indebted to Dean Johnson, that though I am a person of color, he offered me the job ahead of everyone else.”
" What Filipinos viewed as a battle for
their independence, the United States considered an insurrection. "
After her graduation, the Washington state government offered María a position as an assistant chemist. María Orosa, however, was Simplicio and Juliana’s daughter through-and-through; she wanted to take her education and skills back to her people in the Philippines.
Settled in Manila, María taught home economics at Centro Escolar University before taking employment with the food preservation division of the Philippine Bureau of Science. Outside even the parameters of her job, María traveled around to teach women how to plan healthy meals, preserve their produce resources, and raise chickens. She organized 4-H clubs for the country’s children, reaching 22,000 members by 1924.
By February of 1925, gathered crowds celebrating Manila’s Carnival were treated to an exhibition by the Bureau of Science showcasing the most advanced industrial and agricultural products the country had to offer. These rows and rows of canned fruits and vegetables were the products of María’s research. Prior to this, all canned food had to be imported, making it exclusive to the wealthy. Now, long-lasting, healthy food could be accessed by all.
During the Philippine-American War that had shaped her childhood, an estimated 200,000 Filipinos died, most from starvation and disease. It was clear to María that the food system was another area of leverage for colonizers and would-be conquerors. A self-sufficient Philippines, however, could be a free and independent one.
María invented the palayok oven, an earthenware pot designed to efficiently distribute the heat from a fire, which allowed families to bake even without electricity. She created over 700 recipes using local produce and taught methods of food preservation, such as canning, dehydration, fermenting, and freezing, specifically of the fruits, vegetables, and animals native to the Philippines. Her banana ketchup is still a favorite condiment. “She came up with banana ketchup,” said relative Evelyn Garcia in an interview with Lady Science. “Of course, this is branded now, but this is her invention. It’s a Filipino household must-have.” Many countries also owe her their enjoyment of mangoes—it was her method of canning that allowed the fruit to first be exported around the globe.
The Philippine government funded María’s research, and in 1927, they created the Division of Food Preservation. María was named its Head. In this role she was able to travel the world to study preservation techniques to bring back to the Philippines.
María’s innovation and dedication took on even greater importance when World War II broke out in 1939. Like her parents, she joined the resistance, this time allying with United States soldiers against the invading Japanese. In her laboratory, she developed protein-rich Soyalac from soybeans and thiamine-rich Darak from rice bran. As a captain in a guerilla force, she coordinated the smuggling of these nutrient-packed powders to prisoners held in Japanese-run camps, saving countless lives. “To this day,” says Evelyn Garcia, “we actually meet relatives that say, ‘My grandfather survived the war because of María Y. Orosa.”
By 1945, American, Filipino, and Japanese forces fought for control of Manila. María’s friends and family begged her to leave the dangerous city and return to her hometown of Taal, Batangas. María refused, saying that she was a soldier who must remain at her post. That post was her laboratory where she was injured when an American bombing raid targeted a nearby building on Feb. 13, 1945. She survived to be evacuated to a hospital, only for the hospital to be destroyed in a second bombing that same day. María was killed, along with 400 medical professionals and civilians. The manuscript detailing the experiments and inventions she’d been working on was lost in the explosion.
After the war, the American Red Cross posthumously recognized María with a humanitarian award for her efforts to smuggle food to prisoners. A street in Manila was given her name and a monument honoring her stands in Batangas. In 1970, María’s niece Helen Orosa de Rosario published a book of her aunt’s 700 original recipes, dozens of which are still staples of the Filipino diet.
In an interview with Food52, Manila-based chef Jordy Navarra said, “It’s amazing that she basically is the Filipina food hero. Ingenuity in a time of need, which I think captures the Filipino spirit.”
Despite these contributions, María’s name is not well known, even in the Philippines. Companies have absorbed her inventions and placed their own brands on them. María, however, believed this knowledge was to be shared. In her own records, she told her assistants, “When you start an experiment, finish it and write the results for others to use.”