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Retrieving the history of science

Documents newly digitized by the SBPC Heritage Center provide a fresh glimpse into the Society’s past

SBPC membership records on file at the Heritage Center. Lying on top is the membership record of Fernando Dias de Ávila Pires, a zoologist at FIOCRUZ and the National Museum


Documents and images documenting 72 years of history at the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) are now being made available on the internet. Around 11,500 items—including posters, membership records, meeting minutes, proceedings, thematic studies, manifests, and books—have been digitized through a partnership between SBPC and the Institute for Brazilian Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP), and will soon be available in the SBPC repository. The Amélia Império Hamburger Heritage Center (CMAIH), where the collection is kept, was created three years ago to preserve documents that have been amassed since 1948, when leaders from different scientific societies launched a national, nonpartisan institution dedicated to science advocacy and engaging in discussions about the country’s societal issues and development.

The digitization project will benefit researchers interested in learning about episodes in the history of science and technology in Brazil in which the SBPC has played a role. Historian Áurea Gil, who heads the CMAIH, says that around 130 researchers have already reviewed documents in the collection. Some have visited SBPC in São Paulo, while others have requested available digitized copies. “We have received visiting researchers from states such as Santa Catarina, Bahia, Pernambuco, and Rio de Janeiro,” she says.

One of these visitors was historian and social scientist Guilherme Augusto Hilário Lopes, who in 2018 traveled from Blumenau, Santa Catarina, to São Paulo to review the proceedings and agendas of all previous annual meetings at SBPC—today his trip would not have been necessary, as this material has now been almost entirely digitized and made available online. Lopes wanted to explore how scientists’ activities at the Society had evolved over time. The conference proceedings and programs revealed four discrete phases. In the early years, most interaction involved biologists and chemists from the Southeast and South of Brazil, especially researchers from USP. “The next phase was marked by scientists mobilizing to form a resistance to the dictatorship, and was followed by a period of consolidation during Brazil’s redemocratization. Since the 1990s, Society meetings have reflected the massification of science in Brazil as new universities opened and meetings saw increased participation from students and junior researchers,” says Lopes. “Because speaking opportunities were limited, SBPC programs soon diversified to include other events, such as poster sessions.”

CMAIH /SBPC SBPC Chairman Crodowaldo Pavan with Deputy Chairwoman Carolina Bori and then minister of education, Marco Maciel, in 1985CMAIH /SBPC

The material Lopes compiled was too extensive to cover during his short master’s program, which he completed in 2019 at the Center for Technological and Scientific Studies (FURB) as part of the Graduate Regional Development Program at Fundação Universidade Regional de Blumenau (FURB). He chose instead to focus on one particular meeting—the Society’s 69th meeting in Belo Horizonte, in 2017. He is now planning a more comprehensive investigation in a doctoral program.

Researchers’ interest in the documents has led to the rediscovery of forgotten episodes in the Society’s past. Paola Ferrari, an architect, searched the heritage center’s collection for documents describing SBPC’s role in the founding of the University of Brasília (UnB), as part of her doctoral research on the Central Institute for Science, a building designed by Oscar Niemeyer to house several of the UnB’s institutes and schools. “We were unable to find any related records in our collection,” says historian Bruno de Andréa Roma, a documentalist at CMAIH. As she later searched through papers kept at Fundação Darcy Ribeiro, in Rio, Ferrari found a paper describing an SBPC symposium held in 1960 to discuss a roadmap for an innovative academic model at UnB, which would be founded two years later, in 1962. “The researcher sent us a digitized copy of the document,” says Roma.

After spending decades in the drawer for lack of funding, plans to create the heritage center began to materialize in 2015 under the chairmanship of Helena Nader, with funding from federal budget allocations secured by then-congressman Ricardo Trípoli. Historians Áurea Gil and Bruno Roma were hired to organize the collection and now lead a team of technicians and interns. They found 400 boxes of text documents, 4,000 photographs, 500 video and audio tapes, 400 posters, 2,500 journals and publications, and 170 objects. In 2017, the heritage center was officially opened in honor of the memory of physicist and USP professor Amélia Hamburger (1932–2011). More recently, the center received additional federal budget allocations thanks to the efforts of congressmen Alessandro Molon, Celso Pansera, Orlando Silva, Sibá Machado and Cristovam Buarque. “Trípoli’s budget allocations provided funding for the first stage, and subsequent allocations supported continued development of the project,” says Bruno Roma.

CMAIH /SBPC The 29th SBPC meeting in 1977 was held at PUC São Paulo after the military regime barred it from being held at the Federal University of CearáCMAIH /SBPC

The digitization effort was completed in two stages. Before the collaboration with IEB began, the photographs, some of the posters, and conference programs were the first items to be digitized. After the collaboration was launched, researchers then digitized the remaining posters, membership journals, correspondence, and large-format documents, as well as the handwritten meeting minutes covering the period from 1948 to 1974. The team found a number of gaps—minutes were missing for the period subsequent to 1974 that they hope will be found on the SBPC’s computers. Partly mitigating the sparseness of material covering the institution’s earlier years, the researchers found records pertaining to that period in the archives of one of the Society’s founders, physician Maurício da Rocha e Silva (1910–1983), which had been donated to SBPC in 2011. Field notes taken by physicist Ennio Candotti, who chaired the SBPC in 1989–1993 and 2003–2007, have also been incorporated into the collection. “Because Candotti had a habit of documenting his activities in these journals, we refer to them when we want information about the periods in which he served as chair,” says Bruno Roma.

In the future, the CMAIH plans to digitize the entire collection of Jornal da Ciência newsletters reporting on the SBPC’s activities since 1985, as well as news articles covering science and SBPC activities in recent decades. Historical issues of Ciência e Cultura, a journal launched in 1949 by the SBPC and published since 2002 by the Laboratory for Journalism Research (LABJOR) at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), were digitized in 2018 through a collaboration with the National Library. Digitization is supplementary to, and not a replacement for, efforts to catalog SBPC’s heritage materials. To avoid any loss of digitized materials, each document is archived in three redundant locations—on a hard drive, on a server, and in the cloud. “A room full of paper is less at risk than huge volumes of digitized data, which can be lost in a second if a server machine is damaged by an electric discharge, for example,” says Áurea Gil.

The Heritage Center has provided the SBPC with fresh insight into its history. The collection managers discovered, for example, that the Society’s formal anniversary, July 8, 1948, is not the precise date its activities began. They found records of a meeting held one month prior, on June 8, in which the founders laid the groundwork for the new institution. “There’s a letter from the then-owner of the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, Nabantino Ramos, to three of SBPC’s founders—Paulo Sawaya [1903–1995] and physicians José Reis [1907–2002] and Maurício Rocha e Silva—commending them on founding the Society and mentioning the June 8 meeting,” says Bruno Roma.

CMAIH /SBPC A staff member scanning a document at the Institute for Brazilian Studies at USP, and posters announcing SBPC meetings and agendasCMAIH /SBPC

Fisheries engineer Maria do Carmo Figueredo Soares, the SBPC’s regional secretary in Pernambuco, searched the CMAIH archives to retrieve information about the institution’s past activities in her state. There was something that had always intrigued her when looking at the photo gallery of previous secretaries in the entrance to the Society’s office in Recife. The first secretary in the gallery is parasitologist Frederico Simões Barbosa of FIOCRUZ, whose term ran from 1961 to 1963, but an annual SBPC meeting held in 1955 in Recife suggests the Society already had a presence in the state in the 1950s. Historians at the Heritage Center found  meeting minutes signed by Paulo Sawaya in the early 1950s, in which he reports having traveled “North” where SBPC offices were established in Salvador and Recife. Browsing through old issues of Ciência e Cultura, Soares found references to two regional secretaries in Pernambuco not portrayed in the photo gallery.

The first, in 1951, was Newton da Silva Maia, a professor in the School of Engineering at the University of Recife. His successor, in 1955, was Nelson Ferreira de Castro Chaves, of the university’s School of Medicine. “I have been unable to determine how long they each served as secretaries and whether there were others in the intervening period, but I’m still looking,” says Soares, a retired professor at the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco. She was planning to report her findings in an article she was slated to present at an annual SBPC meeting in July, in Brazil’s northeastern city of Natal, but the meeting has now been postponed indefinitely as a result of the new coronavirus pandemic.