Reporting science

Júlio Abramczyk and José Hamilton Ribeiro have been writing about scientific, medical, and environmental topics for 60 years—with no plans to stop

Linotype shop at the newspaper Estado de S.Paulo: an artisanal process

Agência EstadoLinotype shop at the newspaper Estado de S.Paulo: an artisanal processAgência Estado

The brand of journalism devoted to covering all fields of scientific research displays its own unique characteristics while it also belongs to the realm of general news reporting. This is the first in a series of articles on the origins, state of the art, and future of science journalism to be published in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the premier issue of the bulletin Notícias FAPESP, released in August 1995 and transformed into Pesquisa FAPESP when issue 47 came out in October 1999.

The earliest origins of science journalism in Brazil can be traced back to the early 19th century newspapers O Correio Braziliense and O Patriota, explored in Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 100 (“The origins of scientific diffusion”). Information on the scientists who wrote for newspapers at the dawn of the 20th century.

Profiled in these pages, two pioneers provide a portrait of the more recent past: Júlio Abramczyk and José Hamilton Ribeiro. Both were just starting out as reporters back in the day when type was set by machines called linotypes, using molten lead. Now boasting more than 60 years worth of experience, the two men are still going strong.

Good sources: Walter Leser (left), Abrahão Rotberg (center), both of Unifesp, and Abramczyk, in 1962. Below, Abramczyk in 2013

Reproduction Eduardo Cesar Good sources: Walter Leser (left), Abrahão Rotberg (center), both of Unifesp, and Abramczyk, in 1962Reproduction Eduardo Cesar


When Júlio Abramczyk, 17, began working at the São Paulo paper O Tempo in 1949, newsroom desks were all but buried under gigantic typewriters, and telephones were still a rarity. As a copyeditor, Abramczyk tweaked grammar, while later, as a reporter, he learned to write fast, pushing out at least three stories a day. With typewriters clattering and journalists talking loudly back and forth as they puffed away on cigarettes, news offices were noisy places compared to today’s quiet environments. “It was good. There was always someone around to answer a question,” said 82-year-old “Dr. Júlio,” as he is known, speaking in the living room of his home in the São Paulo neighborhood of Higienópolis.

Abramczyk, who worked at Santa Catarina Hospital as a cardiologist for 47 years, until 2013, is one of the forerunners of science journalism in Brazil, a field he helped establish even before it had a name. He took part in forming and strengthening associations and fostering debates, conferences, and courses for journalists. In 2009, he celebrated 50 years of continuous work as a journalist for Folha de S.Paulo and he does not even consider dropping his Saturday column Plantão Médico (Doctor on call), which he now writes at home and delivers online.

Abramczyk spends several hours a day hunting down articles to cover in his 200- to 300-word column. On the afternoon of July 14, 2015, one of those that had his attention dealt with the health risks of skateboarding. Like all good journalists, he loves to delve into an unexplored topic.  “Look at this,” he said, opening a folder of 1972 clippings of his pieces and reading the headlines: “‘Crianças espancadas’ (Children beaten), ‘A preocupação com os velhos’ (Concern over the elderly). I think I just picked up topics before they were fashionable.” Abramczyk combines the enthusiasm of a novice with the maturity of a professional who knows he must always check every bit of information and recognize his own limits. “I’ve never written as if I were the one who knew things. Even today, I write about what other people know. I’m not about to pontificate.”

Abramczyk left O Tempo at the end of his senior year in high school in order to study for the medical school entrance exam. However, he dropped out during his second year at the Paulista School of Medicine, now the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), and went back to journalism, this time at Folha, where they were looking for a medical editor. The news director, who wanted a medical school graduate, turned up his nose when he found out Abramczyk was only a student, but he hired him anyway, on probation. Abramczyk seized the opportunity to prove he was a good reporter. A number of his pieces ran as front-page features. One of them was about cell cultures of Hansen’s bacillus, which causes leprosy, now also called Hansen’s disease. At that time, very little was known about the ailment, which was untreatable. “Reporters were more daring back then.”

Abramczyk remembers that José Reis, physician and researcher at the Biology Institute of São Paulo, who had been writing for Folha since 1947, at first showed no interest in the research into Hansen’s bacillus that had prompted the story. Reis wrote for the paper for 55 years, until shortly before his death in 2002. He had honed his talent for employing direct language in the institute’s journal O Biológico, where institute researchers wrote on their fields of expertise for an audience composed of rural producers. Reis’ specialty was poultry disease.

Abramczyk first showed an interest in science as a teen, after reading a book by Rômulo Argentieri, nuclear physicist from São Paulo and prolific science communicator. Argentieri authored some 30 books on astronomy and worked as science editor for a number of São Paulo papers from 1939 to 1967. Another productive science writer was Eurico Santos, an agronomist from Rio de Janeiro who wrote for various newspapers, founded four agronomy journals, and published some 50 books on Brazilian plants and animals from 1910 to the late 1960s (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 229). Experts covered more complex subjects but a colleague of Abramczyk’s at Folha, the journalist José Hamilton Ribeiro, began writing about science around this time and later made history with his stories in the magazine Realidade and on the television program Globo Rural.

“We enjoyed reporting the news in science,” recalled Abramczyk. “What might be missing today is a bit of joie de vivre, as the French would say.” There was certainly more freedom than today, as apparent in the March 9, 1948, headline of the paper A Noite (now defunct, like O Tempo), announcing physicist Cesar Lattes’ identification of a new atomic particle: “Brazilian scientist makes sensational discovery.”

Abramczyk in 2013

Duardo Knapp/FolhapressAbramczyk in 2013Duardo Knapp/Folhapress

In the jungle
Hired by Folha in January 1960, Abramczyk oversaw the paper’s section on medicine and biology. To keep abreast of the latest developments, he read medical journals and attended many conferences in Brazil and abroad. “Just look how much space I had,” he said, displaying a 1972 clipping of a report of his about an immunology conference in Lisbon that ran three full-length columns on one page.

In the beginning, Abramczyk studied during the day, got to the paper late in the afternoon, and worked until the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes his two worlds intersected. It was at a meeting of the São Paulo Medical Association that he heard medical colleagues talking about research into a disease transmitted in the Amazon. He traveled there and reported on it in the February 9, 1961, issue of the paper: “The mosquitoes are caught by someone with bare arms and legs who waits for them to bite. Before the mosquitoes actually attack the body of their human bait, they are captured in individual bell jars.” He also snapped a picture of a researcher in the dense forest, jar in hand, ready to catch the mosquito. The story won him the State Governor’s Award in 1961.

“Good sources are essential,” he said, pointing to three men in a yellowed photograph on one of his bookshelves. The year was 1962. On the left is Walter Leser, professor of preventive medicine at Unifesp and state secretary of health for two terms; in the middle, Abrahão Rotberg, professor of dermatology, likewise at Unifesp; and on the right, Abramczyk. “They were my sources. I had dinner with them once a month for over 30 years. And each of us picked up our own tab.”

He was also committed to evaluating and strengthening science journalism. Covering the First Iberoamerican Congress on Scientific Periodicals, held in Caracas in 1974, he wrote this about the mission of the professional devoted to this field: “To inform without distorting and, when possible, to interpret. To take a firm stand on the side of science and culture.” He later had his own hand in organizing the Fourth Iberoamerican Congress of Science Periodicals and the First Brazilian Congress on Science Journalism, held in São Paulo in 1982. His science journalism articles make up one section of his book Médico e repórter (Doctor and reporter), alongside others on public health, heart disease, personal health, and personality disorders.

As president of the Brazilian Association of Science Journalism (ABJC), of which he was a founding member in 1978, Abramczyk tried to establish state chapters around Brazil. Not everything turned out as he hoped. Few chapters actually took shape and thrived. When he invited a colleague from Folha, Claudio Abramo, to speak about science journalism at a meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), Abramo declared that there was no point to science journalism and that journalists should not specialize. One of Abramczyk’s ideas was to encourage internships for journalism students at research laboratories so that scientists would lose their fear of talking to reporters while future reporters would stop thinking of scientists as inaccessible. In a way, this idea came to fruition through the courses sponsored by the Journalism Laboratory (LabJor) at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), where both groups, researchers and journalists, meet to discuss issues of shared concern.

Diving into the story: José Hamilton in the Paraguay River in the Pantanal Wetlands in 2006

Reproduction Eduardo CesarDiving into the story: José Hamilton in the Paraguay River in the Pantanal Wetlands in 2006Reproduction Eduardo Cesar

During its prime, from 1966 to 1969, the magazine Realidade (Reality) won eight Esso awards—the top prize in Brazilian journalism—in recognition of reporting of such high quality that the stories are still a pleasure to read today. Of the eight Essos, four went to science pieces and, of those four, three were penned by José Hamilton Ribeiro, who said he first felt the joy of news reporting  when he was around 9 or 10 and heard that a single-engine plane had crashed near his hometown of Santa Rosa do Viterbo, not far from Ribeirão Preto. He and some other boys rushed to the scene, where he spoke with the pilot. He then reported on the incident back at home, where family and neighbors were waiting for him. José Hamilton, as he is known, turned 80 in August 2015; he said he lives “at a very calm pace” now. He no longer needs to keep up with the bustling production rhythm at the television program Globo Rural, where he began 33 years ago—with the illusion that he would be there just a few months before returning to another program on the Globo network, Globo Repórter. He still travels and does news stories. In late July 2015, he was working on two: one about São Gonçalo, a Portuguese saint who is not very well known in Brazil, and one on a new breed of cattle being raised in the Pantanal Wetlands.

José Hamilton started working as a journalist at O Tempo in 1955; he moved to Folha de S.Paulo the following year, where he was a general reporter, covering the daily news and sometimes science. “There was a bias back then that ordinary journalists were poorly trained and unable to understand and write about scientific topics,” he said, looking back over his career from his home office in the São Paulo neighborhood of Aclimação. “At the same time, scientists didn’t think reporters, who were usually young, would be able to understand a topic thoroughly enough to write about it for the man on the street.” Consequently, there were specialists in agronomy, medicine, and engineering who wrote about their own fields for the papers. At Folha, one of these was the Rio de Janeiro physician José Reis, who one day advised the cub reporter to read specialized journals to better prepare for his stories.

José Hamilton garnered more experience in the area after he left Folha. He got his law degree during a stint at the travel magazine Quatro Rodas and then, in 1966, joined Realidade. There he sharpened his eye and his ability to describe people, places, and events. In its earliest years—before censorship was imposed under the military dictatorship that seized power in 1964—the magazine published long, well-composed articles on surprising subject matters, like the tough life of divorcées, who faced prejudice on all sides.

“The key to the history of Realidade, in all areas, was the way we treated the text. At newspapers, the copyeditor would correct and sometimes rewrite the reporter’s story,” he said. “At Realidade, the editor would work over the copy with the reporter; he’d point out problems, say ‘the beginning isn’t good’ or ‘it ends too abruptly’, and he’d ask the reporter to do a better job developing the people and events so the story would flow better. Because, when the text is long, if I don’t understand something, I won’t read the rest.”

He and other reporters then writing about science—like Marcos de Castro, who won an Esso Award for a science piece in the early days of the magazine—gradually perfected the method for handling complex subjects and scientists alike. “When I had to do a story on medicine, engineering, or agronomy, I’d have a go-to source—preferably more than one—and I’d ask the main interviewee to read the first draft, the rough one, before it went to copydesk, to correct any mistakes of a technical nature. I didn’t ask the source to evaluate the structure, whether or not the text read well or not—but just to say ‘this concept isn’t right; let’s explain it better’.”

This practice, which became standard at Realidade, grew out of a report on the first kidney transplant in Brazil, performed in São Paulo. Leery of sensationalism, the doctors had been avoiding the press but they agreed to meet with a team from the magazine. “It was negotiated, a pact of trust. A medical assistant was to read the raw material to prevent any mistake. Aside from that, the work went along as always, with the same concerns over editing the text.” Published in December 1966, the article begins by describing the man set to receive the kidney: “Valter Mendes de Oliveira, 41, three children, and partner in a coffee roasting business in São Paulo, takes quite good care of his health. He was once in bad shape but now he watches out. First thing in the morning, at breakfast, he takes his daily pill. It’s an expensive imported drug that only six people in Brazil use.” Only later on does the account introduce the doctors.

In Portugal: José Hamilton travels the country to show how bark from the cork oak can be used, 2013

Reproduction Eduardo CesarIn Portugal: José Hamilton travels the country to show how bark from the cork oak can be used, 2013Reproduction Eduardo Cesar

Living it before writing about it
The crafting of this report, which earned José Hamilton the first of his seven Essos, is recounted in one of the chapters of the book Jornalismo científico: teoria e prática (Science journalism: theory and practice), published in 2014 in co-authorship with Jose Marques de Melo, professor at both the University of São Paulo (USP) and the Methodist University of São Paulo. But his favorite story introduces Chico Heráclio, a true Northeastern “coronel.” It came out in November 1966 and was reprinted in the recently released O jornalista mais premiado do Brasil (The most award-winning journalist in Brazil), drawn from 10 years of research by journalist Arnon Gomes.

José Hamilton recalls another valuable lesson from his days at Realidade: hands-on experience. “No reporter would write about a topic unless he had basic practical knowledge of it. If you were going to write about a fishing settlement, you had to spend a few days there, living alongside the fishermen, eating the same food as they did. When you went to write, you were writing about what you knew. It wasn’t just what you’d heard about or what other people had observed.” José Hamilton is aware that a news story today sometimes has to be based on only one scientific paper—“skimming the surface,” as he called it. On the other hand, he mused, you can also “talk to the author, visit the laboratory, see who he interacts with and his working conditions. It depends on what you want to do.”

While he was at Realidade, José Hamilton taught journalism at three colleges: Casper Líbero College (where he himself studied, though without getting a degree), Armando Álvares Penteado Foundation (FAAP), and Objetivo Colleges. One of his classes was held in an amphitheater, with a door on either side of the professor’s desk and the students seated in the auditorium in front of him. Suddenly a woman burst through one of the doors, shouting, “Help! He wants to kill me!” Then a man rushed in from the other side, holding what appeared to be a knife in his hand and yelling, “I’m going to kill you!” They were in fact both amateur actors, who soon left the stage. The professor asked his students to write a description of what they had just witnessed. In the next class, everyone was surprised when he showed how the color of the man’s and woman’s clothing varied from one account to another and how the man sometimes wielded a dagger or even a small sword instead of the jackknife he actually had held. “If you, as future journalists, seated in a privileged position and enjoying a full view of the scene, had such distorted visions, imagine an ordinary person,” he said. “You can’t trust too much in your own observations alone.” José Hamilton is still concerned about the training of professionals in this field. He served as president of the Brazilian Association of Science Journalism (ABJC) from 1999 to 2001, during a period of steadily declining membership, and helped organize a conference in Florianópolis.

After heading up newspapers in Ribeirão Preto, São José do Rio Preto, and Campinas for several years, José Hamilton returned to São Paulo to work for Globo Repórter in the early 1980s. His first story was about prospectors in Serra Pelada, then the world’s largest open-pit mining operation. When the team at Globo Repórter underwent reshuffling, he took a temporary assignment with Globo Rural and ended up never leaving. Skilled in listening and story telling, he portrayed the luminous termite hills of Goiás, alongside USP chemist Etelvino Bechara; he accompanied researchers into the Pantanal; and he traveled Brazil, earning the respect of his interviewees and the public at large. So much so that he was paid a special honor: his name was included as part of the scientific name of a species of anthurium discovered in an Atlantic Forest reserve in the state of Espírito Santo in 2009—Anthurium hamiltonii nadruz.

ABRAMCZYK, J. Médico e repórter. São Paulo: Publifolha, 2012.
GOMES, A. O Repórter mais premiado do Brasil. Araçatuba: Editora Eko, 2015.
MELO, J. M. and RIBEIRO, J. H. Journalism científico: teoria e prática. São Paulo: Intercom, 2014.