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Science, a collective activity

Internationally renowned parasitologist Erney Plessmann de Camargo rebuilt scientific institutions and always showed concern for social issues

Eduardo Cesar / Pesquisa Fapesp The researcher in 2013: multiple skillsEduardo Cesar / Pesquisa Fapesp

Parasitologist Erney Plessmann de Camargo beleived that the role of a researcher involved more than scientific contributions. He believed scientists have a social function that must not be reduced solely to cultivating their own careers—science should be a collective activity that pursues the common good. “Erney was not just a great scientist,” says biomedical scientist Helena Nader of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), current president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. “He was a great advocate of training people in science and using science to improve people’s lives.” Camargo, who played a major role in the fight against malaria and Chagas disease, died at the age of 87 in São Paulo on March 3 as a result of complications from spinal surgery.

Born in Campinas, Camargo was a young liberal from modest origins when he joined the School of Medicine at the University of São Paulo (FM-USP) in 1953, an environment dominated by the state’s economic and intellectual elite. He soon met other students and professors with whom he identified in the Department of Parasitology, headed by Samuel Pessoa (1898–1976). A militant communist, Pessoa had been a professor since 1931.

Camargo graduated in 1959 and began working as a teaching assistant at FM-USP in 1961. The following year, he began researching the growth and cell differentiation of Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease. To understand its biochemistry, a large number of the protozoa were needed, but the culture mediums were very inefficient. “It couldn’t be done with just a small amount of T. cruzi,” Camargo told Pesquisa FAPESP in 2013 (issue no. 204). After trying many different ingredient combinations, he achieved the ideal culture medium. The results were published in a 1964 article that is still cited to this day.

The Brazilian military coup occurred that same year, and with it came the establishment of a military police inquiry (IPM) at FM-USP, with the consent of the university’s leadership. Interrogation targets were selected based on internal accusations—many relating to parasitology researchers. According to Camargo, the problems stemmed from the social outlook of the group. “More than politics, it was the department’s involvement in the fight against endemic diseases in Brazil that earned it the reputation of being communist, since combating these diseases involved denouncing poverty and poor sanitary conditions,” he told USP’s Comissão da Verdade (Truth Commission) in 2015.

Shortly after the IPM, dismissals began and Camargo was one of those affected. American zoologist Walter S. Plaut (1923–1990) was visiting Brazil in 1964 and invited the scientist to work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the USA. Camargo, who was married to English literature professor Marisis Aranha Camargo and had children, accepted. In 1968, the Brazilian government created a program to repatriate scientists and he was invited to return to FM-USP at the Ribeirão Preto campus, where he defended his doctoral thesis. Shortly afterwards, he was dismissed again due to worsening political persecution.

After a period editing fascicles for the Editora Abril publishing house and working at a clinical analysis laboratory, he was hired by the São Paulo School of Medicine (EPM), now UNIFESP, in 1970. Over the 15 years he worked at EPM, he helped transform the institution’s reputation and created a graduate course in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Parasitology.

During Brazil’s redemocratization process, he returned to USP as a professor with the task of rebuilding the Parasitology Department. Immunologist Osvaldo Augusto Sant’Anna, from the Butantan Institute, attended Camargo’s welcoming ceremony in 1986. He called the event profoundly symbolic: “It was memorable and emotional. It was the representative of an exceptional department, which had been dismantled by the dictatorship, returning to take over Samuel Pessoa’s position.”

Camargo led the reconstruction of the department, which was relocated from the FM to the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (ICB), and he was vice dean of research from 1988 to 1993. “He knew how to encourage undergraduate and graduate students and foster harmony between the various scientists in the groups he organized,” says Rubens Belfort Junior, a professor from UNIFESP’s Ophthalmology Department. He praises Camargo’s success at UNIFESP, USP, and other institutions.

The parasitologist headed the Butantan Institute (2002 and 2003) and chaired the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq; 2003 to 2007). “It was one of the best administrations the CNPq ever had,” says Nader. Carlos Vogt, president of FAPESP from 2002 to 2007, praises the efficiency with which Camargo promoted cooperation between the CNPq and state funding agencies. During his tenure, the federal agency established the online Lattes and Carlos Chagas platforms, which are essential to sharing information and encouraging integration among researchers. “In every administrative action he took, he always did brilliantly. He had a great sense of institutional responsibility and creativity,” says Vogt. The parasitologist was also head of the Zerbini Foundation, the Brazilian National Biosafety Technical Commission (CTNBIO), and the Brazilian Society of Protozoology.

Despite dedicating himself to so many administrative positions, Camargo never lost sight of research. He formed a strong partnership with fellow parasitologist Luiz Hildebrando Pereira da Silva (1928–2014), with whom he studied malaria in the Amazon, setting up ICB outposts for researching and combating the disease.

“Erney was a tireless defender of science, a scientist with a social vision, a manager who sought to innovate. He leaves a legacy in the science he produced, his teachings, and his dialogues with peers and students. As a student at EPM, I had the honor of having him as a professor during my degree,” says Luiz Eugênio Mello, scientific director of FAPESP. According to FAPESP president Marco Antonio Zago, the parasitologist had a great interest in the future of the university and the country. “I learned a lot from him, especially in the transition between his term and mine as president of the CNPq. I had the honor of congratulating him when he was awarded the title of emeritus professor at USP in 2021,” said Zago.

In 2021, Camargo was named president of the Conrado Wessel Foundation. Vogt, who succeeded him, says Camargo rescued the FCW from a critical situation. Belfort, who helped in the process, summarizes the situation: “People like Camargo leave seeds. Everywhere he went, groups formed that followed the same ideals.” Camargo is survived by his wife, his children Marcelo, Fernando, Eduardo, and Anamaria—all scientists—and 11 grandchildren.