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Memory

Medicine in the countryside

Through his work, parasitologist Samuel Pessoa helped forge an intellectual tradition of public health commitment to the poor

Samuel Barnsley Pessoa Collection / Sérgio Buarque de Holanda History Research Support Center-USP Samuel Pessoa’s accomplishments put him at the forefront of medical parasitology and rural public health in BrazilSamuel Barnsley Pessoa Collection / Sérgio Buarque de Holanda History Research Support Center-USP

The settlement of rural São Paulo State, prompted by the late nineteenth-century expansion of the coffee industry, played a hand in the erosion of living conditions in the countryside and the outbreak of a number of epidemics. Some doctors ascribed these problems to Brazil’s tropical climate, while others cited the absence of government in these regions. But parasitologist Samuel Pessoa believed that a broader approach, grounded in a Marxist perspective, was needed to interpret the situation in the countryside. As he saw it, the ubiquity of disease in agricultural areas was a consequence of the country’s rural economic structure, and large landholdings were key to understanding endemic diseases in agrarian Brazil.

Pessoa’s work as a physician, professor, and Communist militant contributed to the institutionalization of teaching and research in medical parasitology and rural public health in Brazil, at a time when research into the diseases afflicting Brazilians in the countryside overlooked people’s living conditions. The public now has access to documents that Pessoa amassed over the course of his career, at the Sérgio Buarque de Holanda History Research Support Center, of the University of São Paulo (USP). The collection holds over 2,500 items, including articles, letters, and photographs, all organized and digitized by historian Aline Lacerda, with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Rio de Janeiro.

Samuel Barnsley Pessoa (1898-1976) was born in São Paulo. In 1916, he entered the newly founded São Paulo School of Medicine and Surgery, which was to become one of the cornerstones of USP when the university was established in 1934. The medical school was then negotiating with the Rockefeller Foundation about funds for conducting research work and installing a public health laboratory at the institution, made possible under an agreement signed in 1918. Given that the treatment and prevention of ancylostomiasis lay at the center of the foundation’s concerns in Latin America, it was no coincidence that Pessoa presented a paper on the illness as his medical school graduation thesis in 1922.

Samuel Barnsley Pessoa Collection / Sérgio Buarque de Holanda History Research Support Center-USP During fieldwork on the vectors of parasitic diseases (n.d.)Samuel Barnsley Pessoa Collection / Sérgio Buarque de Holanda History Research Support Center-USP

That same year, Pessoa received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to conduct work at health clinics in the interior of São Paulo and study endemic diseases in agricultural regions. “It was then that he became familiar with the reality of São Paulo’s rural populations and first observed signs of the tacit relationship between large landholdings, poverty, hunger, and rural endemic diseases,” says political scientist Gilberto Hochman, of Fiocruz, who studied the physician’s archives before they were made available to the public.

At the age of 33, Pessoa took what was then one of the top positions in medical teaching and research in Brazil: professor of medical parasitology at the São Paulo School of Medicine and Surgery. He trained several generations of scientists, among them parasitologists Luiz Hildebrando Pereira da Silva, who died in 2014; Ruth and Victor Nussensweig; and Erney Plessmann de Camargo. “Pessoa always demanded that his collaborators be socially engaged,” says Camargo, researcher at the USP Biomedical Sciences Institute (ICB). “He chided me more than once for being more concerned with basic research than research applied to public health.”

Appointed head of the São Paulo State Directorate of Public Health in 1942, Pessoa decentralized the state’s public health administration, granting local government greater autonomy in the control of rural diseases. He held the post until 1944, when he returned to USP. His career as a doctor and professor ran parallel to major political events, such as the Revolution of 1932, the Estado Novo dictatorship (1937-1945), and World War II (1939-1945). Infected by the political excitement of the day, he joined the Communist Party of Brazil (PCB).

Samuel Barnsley Pessoa Collection / Sérgio Buarque de Holanda History Research Support Center-USP Pessoa at right with his wife, Jovina Pessoa, and an unidentified man on a visit to China in 1952 to analyze accusations that the United States had deployed biological weaponsSamuel Barnsley Pessoa Collection / Sérgio Buarque de Holanda History Research Support Center-USP

According to Hochman, Pessoa helped shape a genuinely Brazilian field of knowledge. His research on the public health conditions of people in Northeast Brazil underpinned the establishment of the National Malaria Service, which was the embryo of the National Department of Rural Endemic Diseases (DNERu). “With his assistants, he studied the vectors of Chagas disease, leishmaniosis, and schistosomiasis throughout Brazil,” says Camargo. “In São Paulo, his research helped guide the Malaria Prophylaxis Service, founded in 1943.” Pessoa published 352 scientific papers, more than 50 newspaper articles, and 9 books, including Parasitologia médica [Medical parasitology], released in 1946. The book became mandatory reading at all medical schools in Brazil, and revised editions were published until 1982.

In 1952, the parasitologist was invited to join the committee responsible for investigating whether the United States had deployed biological weapons in the Korean War. The panel produced a 600-page document confirming that the country had done so. “Pessoa’s role in this episode earned him tremendous public visibility,” says Hochman. “It cost him legal battles and persecution by the political police and won him adversaries inside the Rockefeller Foundation and the Brazilian medical community,” the researcher explains. After retiring from USP in 1956, Pessoa traveled extensively around Brazil, offering undergraduate courses and organizing research centers in Alagoas, Sergipe, Bahia, Paraíba, and other states into the mid-1970s.

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