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A life devoted to anatomy

Berta Lange de Morretes devoted three-quarters of a century to the study and teaching of botany 

Francisco Emolo / Jornal da USP The professor in 2011, in her office in the Department of BotanyFrancisco Emolo / Jornal da USP

Botanist Berta Lange de Morretes, a professor at the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (IB-USP) for over 70 years, died on November 30, 2016, at the age of 99. “She taught graduate-level courses until 2013,” says her colleague Gladys Flavia Melo de Pinna, who inherited her office in the Department of Botany. Not until 2014 did the near-centenarian professor begin staying home due to mobility problems. “Her mind was fine, her body not so.” According to Morretes’ wishes recorded in her will, the Institute will continue to be her home: her ashes were laid at the base of the Brazil-wood tree she planted in 2007 on her 90th birthday.

Born in Germany to a Brazilian father and a German mother, Morretes came to Brazil at the age of two. The family settled initially in Curitiba and moved to São Paulo a few years later when her father was hired as a zoologist at the Paulista Museum. Berta and her sister were members of the first class enrolled in the natural history program established at USP in 1938. In 1941 she graduated, joined the faculty—her doctorate would come later—and helped establish the Department of Botany, learning along with its founders. “The field of ecological anatomy of plants of the Cerrado is practically synonymous with her name,” says Melo de Pinna. The professor was known as Dr. Berta, according to Melo de Pinna, and although she focused more on the way leaves function, she investigated all aspects of the anatomy of plants related to how they adapt to environmental characteristics.

When Melo de Pinna became a professor at IB in 2003, she quickly became close to her colleague through shared interests. “I was working on anatomy of plants of the Caatinga, and I used to go and talk with her quite a bit.” Several years later, the two undertook a project to digitize all the slides of plant tissue sections for analysis under the microscope that Berta was using in undergraduate and graduate classes. “There are hundreds of slides. It’s an extremely comprehensive and very old collection,” says Melo de Pinna, who is studying how to set up a website to make the material available to researchers.

Shared knowledge
During the process of photographing all the slides in 2010, the two worked together on a daily basis for nearly a year. When she stopped using the office that had been hers for more than 50 years, Morretes feared that all of the bibliographic and research material she had accumulated would be lost. The issue was resolved when the office was officially designated for sharing with Melo de Pinna, who in effect took over the space with a promise to maintain the collection.

Beyond her decades of classes, Morretes also disseminated knowledge in her field through her 1973 translation of the book Anatomy of Seed Plants by Katherine Esau, who had supervised her postdoctoral work at the University of California Davis in the 1960s. “It was the first anatomy book published in Brazil, and it gave Brazilians everywhere access to that field,” Melo de Pinna notes.

Access to knowledge was a priority for the professor, who used to talk about having helped a number of people who crossed her path attend college. “Every year she invited the entire Biosciences Institute over for a meal of feijoada,” says gardener Erismaldo Carlos de Oliveira. Since her home didn’t have room for everyone at the same time, people would go in alternating groups over the course of a month at the beginning of the year. “She always had a new kind of liqueur to drink,” he recalls. “She put three bottles on the table, served everyone, and we had to guess what fruit it was made from.” Morretes never married and leaves no children.