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Science pioneer

Warwick Kerr trained teams and directed research institutions, and was always attentive to the use of scientific knowledge

The researcher in 1986 in Maranhão, where he created apiaries and new research groups

SBPC archive

While he worked on his doctoral thesis, completed in 1948 at the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture at the University of São Paulo (ESALQ-USP), agricultural engineer and geneticist Warwick Estevam Kerr began to write articles in simple language about honey bees and the production of honey for the magazine Chácaras e Quintais (Farms and backyards) and for the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo—and continued writing for the general public in the years that followed, when his scientific studies about the genetics and behavior of honey bees began to emerge in scientific publications, such as Evolution, Genetics and Science.

Always attentive to the use of scientific knowledge, Kerr, who died on September 15 at the age of 96, was one of Brazil’s top researchers on the genetics and behavior of honey bees, created research groups, was the first scientific director of FAPESP, and led research institutions in the interior of São Paulo, in São Luís (Maranhão), Manaus (Amazonas), and Uberlândia (Minas Gerais). In an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP in 2000, he commented about a concern that had guided him throughout his 50-year career in science: “We have to work for the Brazilian people.”

In 1958, he was professor and head of the Department of Genetics at ESALQ-USP when he was recommended by colleagues at USP to establish the Department of Biology at the School of Philosophy, Science, and Languages and Literature in Rio Claro, which would become part of São Paulo State University (UNESP) in the 1970s.

German geneticist Friedrich Gustav Brieger (1900–1985), one of the pioneers of genetics in Brazil and the oldest professor at ESALQ-USP, tried to persuade him: “At USP, you have everything you need to perform your work well. Here it is paradise and there it is hell.” Kerr argued: “But there I will build my own school.” Earlier, he had completed two postdoctoral internships in the United States at the universities of California (1951) and Columbia (1952).

One of the professors he hired at UNESP was biologist Carminda da Cruz Landim, a recent graduate in natural history at USP. “I had barely arrived and he sent me to study the glands in the heads of bees that produce important substances for their intercommunication,” she recounts. When developing the curriculum for the biology course, Kerr included disciplines that had emerged at that time, such as statistics and ecology. He invited students to evening debates about scientific articles (the course was comprehensive) and classes on Saturdays, under the premise that they had “an eternity to rest,” remembers da Cruz Landim, who lectured at UNESP until 2005.

Department of Genetics archive at FMRP-USP Kerr with his team at USP in Ribeirão Preto, where he worked from 1964 to 1975, before leaving for the AmazonDepartment of Genetics archive at FMRP-USP

Born in Santana do Parnaíba, São Paulo, in 1922, Kerr worked on the development of the most productive strains of the European dark bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, for the production of honey. In one of his projects, he put queen bees of Apis mellifera scutellata, the most productive, which he had brought from Africa, in beehives of the European strain. In the beginning of the 1960s, 26 African queen bees escaped the apiary, spread out, and due to their aggressiveness, caused some human deaths. Nonetheless, over time, the crossing of the species resulted in the Africanized honey bee, which is more productive than the European, less aggressive than the African, and more resistant to disease. Improvements in the techniques of handling beehives reduced accidents and turned Brazil into one of the greatest honey producers in the world.

While still in Rio Claro, he welcomed British biologist William Hamilton (1936–2000), who worked with wasps and developed a theory about the evolution of the social behavior of insects, which is considered one of the greatest contributions to evolution after the work of Charles Darwin (1809–1882). “Kerr knew how to recognize talent and treated everyone well,” observes biologist Vera Lucia Imperatriz-Fonseca, senior professor at USP and researcher at the Vale Technological Institute in Belém. “He inspired many generations of biologists and, in the centers he founded, was always a pioneer in the topics of concern, in the development of multidisciplinary teams, and in the dialogue with honey bee breeders.”

Kerr was the first scientific director of FAPESP, from 1962 to 1964, on the recommendation of Paulo Emílio Vanzolini (1924–2013) and Crodowaldo Pavan (1919–2009). He established internal regulations with the legal counsel for FAPESP, José Geraldo de Ataliba Nogueira (1936–1995), and the administrative director, William Saad Hossne (1927–2016). On the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation, he visited similar institutions in other countries and organized the Scientific Board. “Professor Kerr established within the Foundation a commitment to research as its central focus and to define action, as well as a peer review system,” commented physicist Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director of FAPESP, to Agência FAPESP. “His dedication and his appreciation for scientific merit, assessed by peers, were fundamental contributors to the success of FAPESP as a research support organization.”

As a self-declared socialist, Kerr was imprisoned twice. The first time was in 1964, after the military coup, and the second in 1969, when he was the president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). Under his leadership, the institution renounced the grievances committed against scientists who questioned the military government.

He also created research groups at the USP School of Medicine in Ribeirão Preto. Later, he directed the National Research Institute of the Amazon (INPA) for two terms, from 1975 to 1979 and from 1999 to 2002. When he arrived at the institute, there was only one master’s student and one PhD student. He sent the researchers to study in the southeastern states, brought experts from abroad, and when he finished his first leadership term, there were 50 master’s students, 60 PhD students and four graduate courses. He then returned to Ribeirão Preto and retired, but did not stop.

In 1981, he put his wife and seven children in a Volkswagen bus and headed for São Luís, in Maranhão, which he chose for being one of Brazil’s least developed states. He introduced himself to the chancellor of the Federal University of Maranhão and said that he would like to work there. “In Manaus and in São Luís, he stimulated the breeding of honey bees without a stinger, organized the breeders, and used scientific production to support them,” says Imperatriz-Fonseca. Kerr lived his final years in Ribeirão Preto. He left behind 6 children, 17 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. His wife, Lygia Sangilo Kerr, had passed away in 2017.