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Rigor and generosity

Simão Mathias was the first student to get a doctorate from the University of São Paulo's School of Philosophy, in 1942

Family archivesThe researcher in the 1940´s at the physicochemical laboratory he set up after his return from the USAFamily archives

“The month is January; the year is 1942. We are on the stage of the Teatro Municipal concert hall at a very solemn moment; everyone is wearing caps and gowns and the authorities are wearing coats and tails. This is the graduation ceremony of the sixth group of students from the University of São Paulo’s College of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters (FFCL – Faculdade de Filosofia, Ciências e Letras). Dean Fernando de Azevedo announces that finally the college has its own procedures. One hundred students with bachelor and other academic degrees are lined up at different levels on stage. We are the biggest group of students to have graduated from this College. But before the graduation ceremony begins, we will witness a ceremony that is happening for the first time at this college: the graduation of the first PhD, Simão Mathias, then a young man in the Chemistry department, who, in his cap and gown, was handed his diploma to applause from the neophytes.” The description above was made by Professor Antonio Candido, Brazil’s renowned theory of literature scholar, and was read in 1988 during the symposium held in honor of Simão Mathias (1908-1991). At that time, the first student to have earned a PhD from the college then known as FFCL was celebrating his 80th birthday.

Paschoal Senise and Jandyra França, who were classmates of Mathias in the first class to graduate in Chemistry, back in 1935, were granted their PhDs in March 1942. “Mathias got his degree in January because he was about to leave for the United States on a scholarship program granted by the Rockefeller Foundation. The university allowed the graduation ceremony to be held earlier,” says the 90-year old Senise, who still goes frequently to the USP Chemistry Institute. The title of the thesis was “Sobre mercaptanas bivalents e sulfeto-dimercaptanas” (Bivalent mercaptan and sulfur-di-mercaptan), a study about organic compounds of sulfur.

Mathias had been inclined towards physical chemistry; neither professors Heinrich Rheinboldt, a German researcher hired to implement the chemistry course at USP, nor Heinrich Hauptmann, his assistant, were experts in this field. The Rockefeller Foundation scholarship was an excellent opportunity for the creation of this field of study. Mathias spent two years at the University of Wisconsin and came back to Brazil to teach physical chemistry. By then, he had already married Ruth Ann, an American with whom he had two children, Regina and Gilberto. Rheinboldt asked Mathias to set up the first physical chemistry laboratory in Brazil, a task undertaken by Mathias with very little help, as there was no skilled labor in this field to help him.

Family archivesMathias after retirement, eyes only for the history of scienceFamily archives

As the years went by, administrative duties robbed him of the time to devote himself to research. In 1960, he became the Chairman of the Chemistry Department and coordinated the department’s relocation to the future Chemistry Institute building at the Cidade Universitária campus. This relocation was particularly complicated, as it involved integrating the chemistry department of the FFSC college with the other chemistry institutes (those of the Engineering, Medicine, Pharmacy and Veterinary Medicine Schools). “This was his legacy to USP; Mathias always strove to develop and integrate the university,” says Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb, a professor and researcher of the history of science, who is also the founder and coordinator of the Simão Mathias Center of Studies in the History of Science at the São Paulo Catholic University (Cesima/PUC-SP).

In addition to his activities at the university, Mathias was also involved in creating associations, such as the Brazilian Chemical Society (SBQ-Sociedade Brasileira de Química) and the Brazilian Society of Science History (SBHC – Sociedade Brasileira de História da Ciência), created in 1985 and of which he was one of the chairmen. He was also secretary of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência) from 1969 to 1973, during the darkest period of Brazil’s military dictatorship. His house was broken into and searched and he was interrogated because of his involvement with sectors of society that were against the military regime. “Simão Mathias had a deep sense of fairness and balance, which does not go hand-in-hand with authoritarian regimes,” says Márcia Ferraz, a researcher and vice-coordinator of Cesima. This year, which celebrates Mathias’ centennial, the SBQ and Cesima have planned several events to honor the researcher’s contributions to science and to the university.

After retiring in 1978, he went back to a field he had always been interested in, namely the history of science. Thereafter, he became the catalyst for new generations of science history professors and researchers. Until his death in 1991 at the age of 83, Mathias dedicated himself to building up a field other than chemistry. Ana Maria defines the scientist in one word: “Scholar. Simão Mathias was a scholar, a creator of schools of thought, which he did with strictness and generosity.”