At 14 years of age, Duarte began working as an apprentice in an apothecary. He later emigrated to Lisbon, where he worked at the Azavedo Pharmacy and studied at a local pharmaceutical school. He went on to live for several years in Macau and Hong Kong, where he opened his own pharmacy.
In 1863, he moved to Paris, France, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in Physical Sciences. In the French capital, he worked in numerous laboratories and taught at several different schools, and came to be renowned as a scientist, particularly in the field of Organic Chemistry.
According to historian João Nobre de Oliveira, this notable Cape Verdean scientist “while in the French capital, attended classes, obtained his bachelor’s degree in Physical Sciences and, working in the laboratory of one of his professors, the wise Wurtz, in 1867 published his first work as a researcher, and never stopped until his death.”
“He never forgot his native land, and always remained in touch with his relatives and friends, whom he would ask to send him materials from Cape Verde, as he made a point of studying these materials to discover whether they could have any industrial application. This was his way of helping his land,” says João Nobre.
In recognition of the services he gave to the cause of science, the Santo Antão native, who was president of the Paris Chemistry Society, was decorated with France’s highest possible distinction, the Legion of Honor.
As with other prominent figures in Cape Verdean history, such as Amílcar Cabral, Baltasar Lopes da Silva and Eugénio Tavares, among others, Roberto Duarte Silva’s face graces one of the bank notes in circulation in Cape Verde as a way of acknowledging his scientific achievements.