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History of science

Diplomats in the laboratory

A project investigates scientific exchanges between Brazil and Nazi Germany

German scientists in 1937 celebrating the 80th birthday of Bernhard-Nocht (highlighted, at front), founder of the Hamburg Institute of Marine and Tropical Diseases. Also among the celebrants was Rocha Lima (highlighted, back)

Historical archives of the Bernhard-Nocht Institut für Tropenmedizin German scientists in 1937 celebrating the 80th birthday of Bernhard-Nocht (highlighted, at front), founder of the Hamburg Institute of Marine and Tropical Diseases. Also among the celebrants was Rocha Lima (highlighted, back)Historical archives of the Bernhard-Nocht Institut für Tropenmedizin

During the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the German city hosted more than just tourists and delegations of athletes. The “new” Germany also received its first Latin American students, who were drawn to the country to attend courses, participate in conferences, and visit medical institutions. In the years that followed, the number of study tours grew to the point where students began arriving on an itinerant basis. Young Brazilians, especially those from the São Paulo School of Medicine, visited hospitals, laboratories and government agencies through medical-diplomatic missions, which, at the time, were under the aegis of Nazi-party government ministries.  A number of these student missions were sponsored by the German-Iberoamerican Medical Academy. Founded in 1935, the academy sought to foster relations between medical institutions in Germany and countries in Latin America.

“Medicine played an important role in these diplomatic relations because of its great international prestige, even though it was not an obvious tool for cultural propaganda,” says historian André Felipe Cândido da Silva of the Casa de Oswaldo Cruz/Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (COC/Fiocruz), adding that “under National Socialism, medical institutions in Germany were among the most closely aligned with the new regime. From their vantage point as representatives of the academic sector, physicians served as enthusiastic spokesmen for the fervent nationalism that prevailed; and, with its interest in strengthening ties with foreign clients, the pharmaceutical industry also played a part in this dynamic.”  During his post-doctoral research at the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), Silva examined the role of science in German cultural diplomacy between 1919 and 1950, with a focus on the decade of the 1930s. Cultural diplomacy is understood to mean the German effort to foster cooperation between diplomats and scientists, as well as universities, businesses, shipping companies, and other actors.

In addition to excursions by students, nurses, teachers, researchers, and even patients, there were strategies in place promoting collaboration between German and Brazilian physicians and diplomats. Specialized journals, such as the Hamburg Medical Journal, were published as well. Founded by Ludolph Brauer, the journal helped organize international scientific conferences, health campaigns, the consolidation of Germany’s pharmaceutical industry, and the building of hospitals—some of which served the needs of immigrants.

While medical schools in Brazil—especially along the Rio-São Paulo corridor—gained stature through greater specialization, the introduction of technology, more sophisticated surgical techniques, and advances in preventive and diagnostic procedures, Germany was spearheading the development of science. It was there that a tripartite model of medicine—teaching, clinical practice, and university research in Berlin, Gottingen, Heidelberg and Munich —was conceived that laid the groundwork for modern medical education.  Clinical discoveries and developments came out of Germany’s university laboratories, industries, and institutes thanks to such figures as Robert Koch, Rudolf Virchow, Paul Ehrlich, Emil Kraepelin, Emil von Behring, and August von Wassermann.

State of Bahia reports on the visit of Ludolph Brauer of the University of Hamburg to Salvador, in 1935

Political archives of the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Berlin State of Bahia reports on the visit of Ludolph Brauer of the University of Hamburg to Salvador, in 1935Political archives of the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Berlin

Just before World War II, politics began to feel the influence of the sciences. According to Silva, “they became important to national prestige, especially in an atmosphere of intense nationalism.” In the historian’s analysis, the experience of World War I had already demonstrated the importance of building national centers for scientific research aligned with state academic, industrial and military institutions. “In addition, the scientific discourse helped give legitimacy to the territorial ambitions and pretensions of national and racial superiority that were important in unifying the country, both internally and with its allies,” adds Silva.

Cultural superiority
According to Silva, German physicians, persuaded by arguments of cultural superiority, became active in cultural propaganda efforts. After World War I, however, German science became relatively isolated, as some of its scientists showed support for German militarist ideas. Moreover, physicists, physicians and chemists participated in studies involving the development of lethal gas, for example. Germany’s application of knowledge to the objectives of war led many countries to boycott German science until the mid-1920s. “It is important, however,  to distinguish between the different levels of transnational scientific cooperation in order to understand clearly that many researchers continued to maintain informal contact with their counterparts in enemy countries. Despite its international repercussions, the boycott had hardly any bearing on Latin Americans, many of whom did not belong to the organizations behind the boycott,” notes Silva.

Henrique da Rocha Lima, for example, a pathologist and microbiologist from Rio de Janeiro, became one of the chief collaborators of German diplomacy during the 1920s and 1930s. While at the Hamburg Institute of Marine and Tropical Diseases in 1916, Rocha Lima had identified the origin of typhus.  When, in 1928, he returned permanently to Brazil, he became renowned for his leadership at the Biological Institute of São Paulo. Walter Büngeler, a German pathologist from Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk), was chosen as chair of the School of Medicine of São Paulo, where he sought to establish a center that would be aligned with the sciences in Germany. Successfully meeting the expectations of Nazi-party chancellery officers, Büngeler transformed the school into a scientific cornucopia for the German-Iberoamerican Medical Academy, especially through student excursions.

These important exchanges included such figures as ophthalmologist Antônio de Abreu Fialho, psychiatrist Antônio Pacheco e Silva, and dermatologist Adolfo Lindenberg, all of whom were invited to Germany. Among the Germans who came to Brazil were physicians Franz Volhard, Helmut Ulrici, Walter Unverricht, Heinrich Huebschmann and Karl Fahremkamp, to name a few. Ludolph Brauer, director of the Eppendorf Hospital, visited Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and São Paulo, where he traveled to the distant colony of Presidente Epitácio, home to an active Nazi-party cell.  With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the scientific exchanges were thrown into disarray before finally coming to a halt in 1942 with Brazil’s entry into the War on the side of the Allies.

German-Brazilian scientific relations and medicine in the state of São Paulo (1919-1950) (No. 2011/51984-5); Grant mechanism: Post-doctoral research grant; Principal investigator: Maria Amélia Mascarenhas Dantes (FFLCH-USP); Grant recipient: André Felipe Cândido da Silva; Investment: R$227,531.91 (FAPESP).