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Scientists and enthusiasts

110 years ago, professional and amateur scientists founded the São Paulo Society of Science

Lutz’s 1905 article on hematophagous insects, in German, along with a tribute to him by the society

New York Botanical Garden LibraryLutz’s 1905 article on hematophagous insects, in German, along with a tribute to him by the societyNew York Botanical Garden Library

In the early years of the 20th century, professional and amateur scientists in São Paulo founded an association where they could discuss scientific topics and bring them into the public eye. On June 10, 1903, at a meeting held at the home of Edmundo Krug, botanist and professor at Mackenzie Secondary School, the decision was made to establish the São Paulo Society of Science. “It was one of the first movements of scientists in the country to encompass more than just medicine or engineering and that was meant to gather all the sciences into one single institution,” says the physicist and historian of science Thomás Haddad, of the School of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities (EACH) at the East campus of the University of São Paulo (USP Leste).

At the time, São Paulo was site of the Historical and Geographic Institute, the Society of Medicine and Surgery, and the Society of Agriculture, Commerce, and Industry. The Society of Science came to life at a moment when the borders between scientific communities had not been wholly defined. This was reflected in the composition of the new institution, which was the product of an initiative by scientists and “some dilettantes,” as Krug referred to the non-professionals who had an interest in science.

Among the first to belong to the society, besides Krug, were the botanists Alberto Loefgren and Gustavo Edwall, who were with the São Paulo Geography and Geology Commission; Vital Brazil, director of the Butantan Serum Therapy Institute; Job Lane, biology professor; Antonio Barros Barreto, engineer and professor at the Polytechnical School; Paulo Florence, private teacher; and Erasmo de Carvalho, literature teacher at Mackenzie. They were later joined by Adolfo Lutz, a physician, bacteriologist, and entomologist; Victor Dubugras, an engineer and professor at the Polytechnical School; and Belfort Mattos, future head of the São Paulo Meteorological Service. Other well-known figures became active or corresponding members, such as Oswaldo Cruz, Emílio Goeldi, Euclides da Cunha, and even some politicians from the Paulista Republican Party.

A note by Splendore on toxoplasma, in Italian, published in 1908. At the time, he had not yet named the microorganism

New York Botanical Garden LibraryA note by Splendore on toxoplasma, in Italian, published in 1908. At the time, he had not yet named the microorganismNew York Botanical Garden Library

The Society of Science’s stated mission was to enhance social awareness of scientific discoveries, promote the teaching of the sciences in schools, assemble a good library, and even set up a museum. Only the library came into being. In its early years, the society held public conferences in rented or borrowed rooms. In 1904, for example, Vital Brazil lectured on antivenoms, Belfort Mattos gave a report on how sunspots influence climate, and Leopoldo de Freitas spoke about the Russian soul. “The conferences were deliberately all-encompassing in nature and were attended by a small, eclectic public,” states Haddad, who has researched the topic. In 1905, the society started its journal, called the Revista da Sociedade Scientifica de São Paulo; addressing a wide variety of subjects, it circulated intermittently until 1913. Some of the published articles became classics in their fields. For the first issue, Lutz wrote an article in German about hematophagous insects of the order Diptera, which is still cited in the scientific literature today. In 1908, the Italian physician Alfonso Splendore, who was then working in São Paulo, published a note containing the first description of the microorganism Toxoplasma gondii, though not yet with this name. The journal also republished a series written by the artist and inventor Hercule Florence on his exploratory journey from the Tietê River to the Amazon River, a series that had originally been released years earlier by the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute.

The institute died out in the 1910s. “The last record I found was a note in the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo convoking a meeting, in 1917,” says Haddad. According to him, the causes may lie precisely in the society’s comprehensive approach and the amateur status of most of its members, which growing specialization within the sciences rendered inappropriate. In 1916, the Brazilian Society of Sciences was founded in Rio de Janeiro (renamed the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in 1921); modeled after the age-old academies in Paris and Lisbon, it was divided into specific sections and composed of and for scientists.