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Defender of access to science

Biochemist Isaías Raw produced internationally relevant research, actively disseminated knowledge, and contributed to the production of vaccines and immunobiologicals

Raw, in 2005: decades of work as a researcher, educator, and disseminator

Miguel Boyayan / Pesquisa FAPESP Magazine

If there were such a thing as born scientists, biochemist Isaías Raw would certainly be one of them. Born in 1927, in São Paulo, as a teenager he read books ranging from tales of scientists’ adventures to the career of French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822–1895), with a foray into pharmaceutical chemistry. In the early 1940s, as a junior high student, he had already walked the halls of Palacete da Alameda Glete, which, at the time, housed the then School of Philosophy, Sciences, and Languages and Literature at the University of São Paulo (USP). “Out of sheer curiosity, he frequented the university before having any ties to it and was enamored,” explains biologist Paulo Lee Ho, a researcher at the Butantan Institute, where Raw left an important legacy. The biochemist died at the age of 95, on December 13, of natural causes.

Raw enrolled in the School of Medicine at USP (FM-USP) in 1945 and graduated in 1950. Four years later, he would complete his doctorate in biochemistry at the same university. Then, in 1957, he became a faculty member. As a researcher and professor at FM-USP, Raw tended to distrust the knowledge established and reproduced by most of his colleagues. “He questioned the status quo and fought to change reality for the better. He was a revolutionary,” says biomedical scientist Helena Nader, of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) and president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC).

His colleagues report that the young professor rejected the academic power structures that stifled medicine and hindered the construction of knowledge. The status quo that Raw opposed was that which rewarded social origin over merit, both in college admissions and in the hiring process. In response to this, he helped create, in 1964, the Selection Center for Medical School Candidates (CESCEM), which unified the student-selection process used at the largest medical schools in the state of São Paulo. It was the precursor to FUVEST.

As he saw it, a doctor’s education should be strictly based in science. It is not by chance that he created the human genetics discipline in 1958 and founded the Experimental Medicine course at FM-USP, which sought to integrate basic and clinical sciences into the same body of knowledge. To entrench scientific research within the department and improve biochemistry instruction, he hired professors with no medical training, such as geneticist Pedro Henrique Saldanha and chemist Júlio Pudles. There was pushback from colleagues, as the school had never hired nonmedical professors.

Biochemist Walter Colli, a professor emeritus at USP, was advised by Raw during his doctoral studies. He says that when they met, in 1958, “Raw was already debating mitochondrial function with some of the world’s leading biochemists.” The debate focused on whether mitochondria had to be whole to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP, the main source of cellular energy) or if this could occur with only a fraction of the mitochondria. Colli states that Raw was on the right side of the debate and ended up demonstrating that a submitochondrial fraction can produce ATP, in an article published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. For the first time, he showed the existence of many enzymes in the metabolism of the Trypanosoma cruzi protozoan.

Raw’s opposition to the entrenched elitism in academia, compounded by his antagonistic personality, garnered him a collection of foes. Accused of being a communist shortly after the 1964 military coup, he was arrested and spent two weeks behind bars. He was released in response to the outcry from influential colleagues, who warned that Raw was an internationally renowned professor who had to fulfill commitments abroad. He worked on scientific and educational projects until Institutional Act No. 5 (AI-5) was passed in 1968, resulting in his forced retirement from the university in 1969.

Exiled, he first lived in Israel, where he was a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From there, he moved to the United States and lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, and the City College of New York. The exile lasted ten years. Upon his return to Brazil in 1980, Raw resumed his teaching position. “Training scientists means training students who will be better than you. That is the role of a professor,” he said in 2015, during an interview with Univesp TV. In this respect, he believed he had fulfilled his mission and assumed the position of researcher at the Lavoisier Clinical Analysis Laboratory and, soon after, the Butantan Institute.

According to his colleagues, Raw’s practices at the Butantan Institute reveal an emphasis on the collective and on improving public health. Prior to his arrival, states Ho, the country’s production of antivenom vaccines and serums was limited—tests performed in the 1980s had shown that the serums were neither effective nor safe. Raw began redirecting the Institute towards self-sufficiency in immunobiologicals.

He was Institute Director from 1991 to 1997 but worked there from 1984 until recently. “Raw was mercurial, he fought for what he thought was right—and they often were,” says immunologist Osvaldo Sant-Anna, former scientific director of the Institute. With this attitude, he coordinated the project to transfer technology from the Sanofi Pasteur pharmaceutical company, in France, to the Butantan Institute, to produce flu vaccines. After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, he brought Russian researchers to the Institute to produce Hepatitis B vaccines. Not only was this successful, but they were able to produce pulmonary surfactant for newborns with respiratory issues. According to Nader, Raw transformed the Butantan Institute into a strategic institute for Brazilian public health.

Among his interests were education and scientific dissemination, as he relayed in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP in 2005. Even when he was still just a high school teacher at Colégio Anglo Latino, he created a small zoology museum within the school. Colli recalls that, in the late 1950s, Raw built small pieces of equipment, such as rudimentary and cheap microscopes, which could be used by schools to view cells and teach scientific concepts. He also created “The Scientists” kits, which allowed elementary aged students to perform scientific experiments—3 million were produced and sold at newsstands.

Along with Myriam Krasilchik, of USP’s School of Education, among other colleagues, he translated science textbooks and wrote scientific publications. He directed institutions aimed at promoting science education and popularization, such as the Brazilian Institute for Education, Science, and Culture (IBECC), in the 1950s. “He was an unpaid entrepreneur. Everything revolved around education: he always came up with original, actionable ideas. Many of us grabbed ahold of these ideas and successfully developed them,” recalls Colli. “He was one of the most altruistic guys I’ve ever met,” says Ho.

The image of a resolute scientist emerges in the descriptions of all those who knew him well. “He never stopped, his whole life. He was a little machine,” recalls Sant’Anna. Nader concludes similarly: “He was a steamroller. Difficulties, for him, existed to be faced and overcome.”

Raw had three children, two of whom are still living, and many grandchildren.