Breaking barriers

One of the pioneers of the study of particles, Elisa Frota-Pessôa participated in the founding of CBPF

Francisco Alcântara Gomes, Elisa Frota-Pessôa, Jayme Tiomno, Joaquim da Costa Ribeiro, Luis Sobrero, Leopoldo Nachbin, José Leite Lopes and Maurício Peixoto in 1942, in front of the National School of Philosophy


“She did what she thought was right,” says physicist Sonia Frota-Pessoa about her mother, Elisa Frota-Pessôa. One of the first women in Brazil to graduate from physics, she was an important figure in the early research and teaching of the discipline in the country, when women were not expected to work, much less become scientists. She died of pneumonia at 97 years of age, on the night of December 28 in Rio de Janeiro.

Born January 17, 1921, Elisa Esther Habbema de Maia was captivated by physics and mathematics and wanted to become an engineer. The program, which was considered masculine, was forbidden. Then she discovered the university course of physics and, despite going against her father’s will, registered in 1940 at the National School of Philosophy (FNFi). She was already married to biologist Oswaldo Frota-Pessôa (1917–2010), with whom she had two children: Sonia, retired professor from the University of São Paulo, and Roberto, general surgeon.

In 1942, she became an assistant to physicist Joaquim da Costa Ribeiro (1906–1960) at FNFi, and continued until 1944 when she became a professor. In 1949, she was one of the founders of the Brazilian Center for Physics Research (CBPF).

She wrote, in collaboration with Neusa Margem (1926–2015), the first article about research carried out in the institution: “About the decay of the positive parity heavy meson,” which was published in 1950 in the magazine Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências (Annals of the Brazilian academy of sciences). In this project, they analyzed photographic plates, brought from the United States by physicist César Lattes, which registered the path of the pi meson, a particle that he had helped to discover and demonstrate its capacity to be detected in the first generation of particle accelerators. This type of experimental study consolidated the description of material components that were being discovered at that time.

At CBPF, she managed the Laboratory of Nuclear Emulsions until 1964. “They used photographic plates, coated with a layer of emulsion, exposed to cosmic rays on mountain tops, and later examined under microscope,” describes Sonia Frota-Pessoa. Without experimental physics laboratories at FNFi, the students of Elisa Frota-Pessôa did their internships in the teaching laboratory she established at CBPF along with physicist Jayme Tiomno (1920–2011), with whom she lived from 1951 until his death.

During the military regime, Frota-Pessôa and Tiomno transferred to the University of Brasília (UnB), taking students with them. This did not last long. In that same year, they were among 223 professors who requested collective discharge in protest against political persecution. In 1969, she was given early retirement by the military regime at FNFi and was removed from CBPF, along with Tiomno. They went to work in Europe and the United States.

In 1980, the couple was readmitted to CBPF, where they continued their research and teaching. Reaching the age of retirement, Frota-Pessôa retired from CBPF in 1991 and received the title of Researcher Emeritus, and continued to work until 1995.

The physicist left behind two children, five granddaughters, and nine great-grandchildren, missing by very little the opportunity to know her great-great-granddaughter. The majority of them are following academic careers or are moving in this direction. The women of the family found open doors in choosing their paths. “Mom broke all of the taboos.”