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A genetics-friendly environment

Crodowaldo Pavan made a striking contribution to the advance of Brazilian science

Pavan at the wheel of a Ford Mercury with Brito da Cunha beside him and Sophie Dobzhansky (behind him) during fieldwork on the coastal region

Hans Burla Collection/ Memory Commission IB-USPPavan at the wheel of a Ford Mercury with Brito da Cunha beside him and Sophie Dobzhansky (behind him) during fieldwork on the coastal regionHans Burla Collection/ Memory Commission IB-USP

In 2009, Brazil lost one of its best-known scientists. Victim of multiple organ and systems failure, caused by an earlier brush with cancer and a previous heart attack, the biologist and geneticist Crodowaldo Pavan died on the April 3, at the age of 89, in the Universitário Hospital of the University of São Paulo (USP), where he spent the greater part of his highly successful career. Born in the city of Campinas, Pavan graduated from USP with a degree in natural history in 1941, and was one of the founding fathers of genetics in Brazil. Throughout a scientific career that lasted more than half a century, Pavan made important discoveries, which led to the publication of research papers that had an international repercussion, in addition to training dozens of researchers in both Brazil and the USA. Pavan also ran some Brazil’s most prestigious scientific institutions.

For the geneticist Francisco Salzano, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), the story of Pavan, who was his PhD advisor, in 1955, is intimately linked to the story of genetics in Brazil. “You can’t talk about one without referring to the other”, declares Salzano, who in December of last year took up the Crodowaldo Pavan Chair at the Mercosul Institute of Advanced Studies, at the Federal University of Latin-American Integration (Unila), in the town of Foz do Iguaçu ( state of Parana). “But he also made a major contribution to the development of genetics at a global level, as he was responsible for some of the most important research studies.”

The biologist André Perondini, a full professor at the Department of Genetics and Evolutionary Biology, IB-USP, the Institute of Bioscience at the University of São Paulo, recalls that the entry of Pavan – who was his advisor – into the academic world in 1938, coincided with a particularly important period for the development of genetics in Brazil. In an obituary for Pavan that he wrote together with his IB colleague João Morgante, also a full professor and one of Pavan’s postgraduate students, he stated that this science first began to be taught in Brazil in 1918, at what was then the Agricultural School in Piracicaba. Later, in 1927, it began to be taught at USP’s Medical School and, in 1933, at the Campinas Agronomic Institute (IAC). “But the major impetus resulted from the creation of the Chair of General Biology, held by professor André Dreyfus, in USP’s School of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature (FFCL), in 1934”, he states. “On top of this there was also the Chair of Cytology and General Genetics, which was headed up by the professor Friedrich Gustav Brieger, at USP’s Luiz de Queiroz Higher Agricultural Institute (Esalq), Piracicaba campus, in 1936.”

However, the decisive impulse actually came in 1943 with the arrival in Brazil of none less than Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Russian born, naturalized US citizen, who was responsible for the unification of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution with Mendelian Genetics. “Dobzhansky was at the height of his career, he was a demi-god,” recalls Luiz Edmundo Magalhães, a full professor of genetics and evolution and the former director of USP’s Institute of Bioscience, who was Pavan’s first doctoral student. “His book Genetics and the Origin of Species, released by Columbia University Press, in 1937, was a major success.”

The story of Dobzhansky’s coming to USP is well known and was often told by Pavan. In part, his arrival was due to World War II. At that time, the Rockefeller Foundation supported scientific research in various countries. Because of the conflict, it was no longer able to finance researchers in Europe, Asia and Africa. So it switched its attention to Latin America. The foundation’s representative on the continent, Harry Miller Jr., went to Dreyfus to suggest that he should spend a sabbatical year in the USA, at the foundation’s expense. Initially the Brazilian accepted. However, he subsequently announced that he could not go, as his assistants, Rosina de Barros and Pavan himself, were very young and would be unable to take care of his laboratory for a whole year. Therefore, Miller Jr. proposed that Dobzhansky should come, which was enthusiastically accepted by Dreyfus.

However, the Russian American made one demand in order to come to Brazil: he wanted to have a chance to get to know the Amazon Region and spend at least two months there doing research. This was accepted. It was up to Pavan to accompany him. Magalhães recalls that Dobzhansky had been one of the first researchers to use flies of the genus Drosophila (the fruit fly, a model organism for the study of genetics), as experimental research material for studies of evolution. This became highly fashionable at that time, and was used in all of the world’s major research centers. “This was how the use of these insects for research was introduced in Brazil,” he recalls. “Dobzhansky taught the basic information about drosophilae, systematics and how to breed the species in laboratories.”

Pavan knew better than anyone how to take advantage of these teachings from being close to the Russian-American researcher. “In 1943 he had his first two research papers published, both in collaboration with Dobzhansky,” adds Magalhães. “One of them, about systematics, appeared in a bulletin from the FFCL’s Department of General Biology. The other, about the chromosomes of the Brazilian species of drosophilae, was published in nothing more, nothing less than the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which is one of the hardest journals in which to get an article accepted for publication. This was undoubtedly an excellent debut and a very quick one as well.”

Pavan in his office in Alameda Glete in the 1950s, in the department’s attic

Luiz Edmundo Magalhães CollectionPavan in his office in Alameda Glete in the 1950s, in the department’s atticLuiz Edmundo Magalhães Collection

However, Pavan was not the only one to benefit from all this. From this time up until at least 1962, the Rockefeller Foundation financed studies by a number of researchers, the first of whom were part of Brazil’s pioneering genetics group. In addition to Pavan, along with the leader of the group, Dreyfus, there were also names such as Antonio Brito da Cunha and Newton Freire-Maia, both from USP, Antonio Lagden Cavalcanti and Chana Malogolowkin, from Rio and heading up the Rockefeller Foundation’s activities in Brazil was Dobzhansky himself. Chana, who now lives in Israel, also remembers his influence. “I can even say, with no fear of being wrong, that it was he, with his enthusiasm, who established the first group of young geneticists in Brazil,” he declared.

Dobzhansky’s prestige made itself felt shortly after his arrival. In an article published in the Brazilian Magazine of Culture, in 2008, Thomas F. Glick, professor of history from the University of Boston, said that a month after Dobzhansky arrived he gave a course on evolution that was to become a landmark in Brazilian genetics. “The lectures were taught in USP’s Department of Chemistry,” writes Glick. “About 20 students signed up for the course, but the majority of the biologists also attended the lectures, as did representatives of other local entities such as the Biological Institute, a group that included Henrique da Rocha Lima, Clemente Pereira and Zeferino Vaz. The course influenced all of São Paulo’s biologists. Carlos Krug came from Piracicaba and Friedrich Brieger from Campinas, each of them bringing between 15 and 20 of their students along.”

Pavan himself referred to this course in an interview published in 50 anos do CNPq [50 years of CNPq] as recounted by its presidents, organized by Shozo Motoyama (FAPESP, 2002). “A month after his arrival, [Dobzhansky] taught an extraordinary course, which lasted a month and was attended by about 100 intellectuals from São Paulo, Campinas and Piracicaba”, he said. “For this course, he wrote down his lectures. Dreyfus would then translate them into Portuguese, while Brito da Cunha and I listened to him rehearsing the lecture and corrected his pronunciation. Thus, he was able to give the lectures in Portuguese. When he had any doubts, he’d speak in English.”

According to Pavan, this was how a new genetics phase got underway in Brazil, one in which Dreyfus also played an essential role, as he was a person who loved teaching, learning and passing on knowledge. He never kept a secret to himself. Pavan used to say that instead of ensuring that just his own group of students could benefit from Dobzhansky’s presence, as is common among scientists, Dreyfus made a point of sharing the Russian-American’s presence, inviting researchers from various sites all over Brazil. “He gave Dobzhansky carte blanche, and he also put him in touch with the Esalq and IAC people,” recalled Pavan, in 50 anos do CNPq. “We were truly a team.”

It was a tight-knit group, united by a common interest in genetics and research, and who did not mind working very hard. They often hung out at FFCL’s Department of General Biology, located in a building that no longer exists on Alameda Glete, in downtown São Paulo, after working hours. “All of us happily worked in the lab a lot more than 12 hours a day, even on Saturdays and Sundays,” recalls Chana.

“It was very a normal thing on Sunday mornings to pass by the department, meet your colleagues and make plans for the next week,” adds Magalhães. “It was also not unusual to work at night. To tell the truth, the department was like our own home. At that time, all the members of the department got on very well with each other, and you have to remember that there weren’t many of us, only about 15 in total.”

Dobzhansky himself also worked when he was in Brazil – he made six visits to the country between 1943 and the 1960s. The impact of these visits on Brazilian genetics can be measured by the number of papers published by Brazilians who were working with the Russian scientist. This is what the researcher José Franco Monte Sião did in his dissertation for his master’s degree in the History of Science, ‘Theodosius Dobzhansky and the development of genetics of Drosophilae population in Brazil: 1943-1960’, which was presented at the Pontifical Catholic University of Paulo (PUC-SP) in 2008.

He stated that before 1943 there were no papers published by Brazilian authors on genetics of drosophila populations. Between 1943 and 1948 (the period between Dobzhansky’s first and second visit) 12 were found. The researcher with the greatest number of works published was Pavan, with six papers, of which three were authored only by himself and three were written with colleagues in the group or with Dobzhansky.

It was this sharing of knowledge and the pioneering group’s degree of integration that laid the foundations for the development of animal genetics in Brazil. This integration was so successful that the group grew and was joined by researchers from other states, such as Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro, Paraná and Bahia. In the following 15 years, genetics research in Brazil gained such maturity that it became one of the 10 leading countries in the world in this field. For Magalhães, Pavan undoubtedly played a crucial role in this development. “He was a great promoter of scientific progress, particularly in the field of genetics, which was an area in which he had an influential role, to a certain extent a decisive one, right from the start of his career,” he added.

Perondini and Morgante recall that Pavan published more than 100 scientific papers and helped create a body of researchers who in turn guided many others, in a multiplying effect. “In this way he left behind his lineage of ‘scientific children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren’,” they declared. “His death left a vacuum in the Brazilian scientific community, but what remains is the certainty of his enormous legacy as a human being, as a man of science and to a great extent he was responsible for the development of science, particularly of genetics, in Brazil.”