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The history of science through letters

Oswaldo Cruz’s correspondence reflects the communication among doctors and the formation of healthcare institutions in the early twentieth century

When writing to colleagues in Brazil and France, Oswaldo Cruz discussed vaccine production and research on tropical diseases

Oswaldo Cruz Foundation / Wikipedia Commons

In 1899, after two years spent studying in Paris, Dr. Oswaldo Gonçalves Cruz (1872–1917) returned to Brazil with an agenda. In October of that same year, he was called upon to help contain an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the Brazilian coastal city of Santos, São Paulo. In 1900, he began building an institute in Rio de Janeiro, for which he later became the namesake, and which went on to become one of the country’s leading institutes for vaccine production and research. At the helm of the Public Health Department, he fought yellow fever and smallpox epidemics, gaining national and international prestige, until ailing health forced him to move to Petrópolis, in the Serrana region of Rio de Janeiro State, where he served as mayor for a few months (see Pesquisa FAPESP issues nºs. 294 and 298).

Oswaldo Cruz’s ideas, daily life, and professional career are not only reflected in reports and scientific articles, but also in the 342 letters that he wrote to family, 583 to public institutions, and another 259 exchanged among Cruz and other scientists from 1899 until late 1916, when he resigned as mayor of Petrópolis due to his poor health.

Reexamined upon the 150th anniversary of his birth, in August, the letters illustrate his concern with sending news to his family, particularly his wife, Emília da Fonseca Cruz (1873–1952), whom he called “Miloca” or “Miloquinha,” and whom he asked for advice on decisions to be made. When sent to medical colleagues in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, the country’s capital at the time, or São Paulo, the letters reveal the efforts being made to develop new technology capable of producing serums and vaccines, then a top priority for the country.

Instituto Butantan Archive/ Memory CenterVital Brazil told his friend from Rio about the difficulties he faced producing serums and vaccines in São PauloInstituto Butantan Archive/ Memory Center

“His personal correspondence hints at the network of individuals with whom Oswaldo Cruz shaped the Instituto Soroterápico (Serum Therapy Institute), which he began building in 1900 to engage in teaching, research, production, and, as of 1909, medical care, which are its current institutional pillars,” says historian Ana Luce Girão Soares de Lima, of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation’s Oswaldo Cruz House (COC-Fiocruz). “He showed French and German scientists, with whom he also exchanged letters, that he was at the forefront of tropical disease research, but he opened the doors to scientific collaboration, which often came to fruition.” According to the researcher, he knew the value of what he had, as his European colleagues asked for blood samples from people with malaria or disease-carrying insects.

“The dissemination of this and other correspondence among scientists could enhance knowledge around the scientific method in Brazil, its practices, its achievements, and its ups and downs,” notes Marcos Antonio de Moraes, of the University of São Paulo’s Brazilian Studies Institute (IEB-USP), and author of Orgulho de jamais aconselhar. A epistolografia de Mário de Andrade (Proud to never advise: The epistolography of Mário de Andrade; Edusp, 2007) and a collection of letters related to Brazil, with 331 works (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 262). “The letters have a pulsating, personal element, expressing affection, friendships, and rivalries, but they also reflect the collective memory, mirroring beliefs, ideologies, and social and political dimensions of everyday life. Letters are gestures of emotional or intellectual seduction, through which the writer crafts various personal figurations before their recipients.”

Letters among scientists may provide precious details for understanding complex scientific facts, reason science historians Maria Margareth Lopes and Silva Figueirôa, both of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), in an article published in 2003 in the magazine Anais do Museu Paulista (Annals of the Paulista Museum). In this article, they examine the correspondence between North American geologist Orville Derby (1851–1915) and zoologist Hermann von Ihering (1850–1930) throughout the creation of the Paulista Museum. “As they are testimonials produced within specific contexts, the letters themselves should not be seen as unquestionably true, but compared with other historical sources, such as official documents and press records,” recommends Moraes.

FIOCRUZ / COC / Oswaldo Cruz Archive The doctor and his wife, whom he called Miloca, and to whom he wrote often, asking for advice on decisions to be madeFIOCRUZ / COC / Oswaldo Cruz Archive

In 1900, as soon as he returned from Santos, Cruz began working as the chief technical officer for the Instituto Soroterápico, which later adopted his name and became a foundation. At the same time, in São Paulo, doctor Vital Brazil Mineiro da Campanha (1865–1950), a Minas Gerais native, established the Instituto Bacteriológico (Bacteriological Institute), a laboratory to produce serums to treat the bubonic plague (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 300). The two men exchanged letters describing the difficulties they faced.

In one letter from March 10, 1900, Vital Brazil recounted that one of his laboratory’s facilities was still “paralyzed by the ill will of those who govern: unopened devices, spoiling materials, and a veterinarian getting paid without doing anything! It’s quite sad to see how matters of interest to science are treated in our country.” Construction on the stables and laboratory was behind schedule, but animal immunization experiments using dead cultures of the Yersinia pestis bacteria, which causes the bubonic plague, were forging ahead. Finally, he asked for a favor. “Oswaldo Cruz, could you order and send 40 or 50 guinea pigs [then used in place of current-day laboratory mice]? They are very hard to find in São Paulo.”

In November of 1900, in turn, Oswaldo Cruz told Vital Brazil that if it was of interest to him, he could detail the successful changes he had implemented for producing the plague vaccine: “We have already infected some horses with live cultures and have been pleased to see that the plague bacillus disappears from their blood within 24 hours.” He then thanked him for delivering a venom, likely from snakes, which Vital Brazil had begun studying, saying that he would perform chemical studies and asking for a culture of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis in people.

CARL / FM / USPRocha Lima mentioned a Congress in Berlin, at which Oswaldo Cruz would be awarded the gold medal for his campaign against yellow feverCARL / FM / USP

Head of a virology laboratory at an institute in Hamburg, Germany, pathologist Henrique da Rocha Lima (1879–1956) wrote to advise Cruz of an international congress on hygiene to be held in Berlin in 1907. He suggested that Oswaldo Cruz participate to showcase the successful fight against yellow fever in Rio de Janeiro. Busy with the Institute and his role as General Directorate of Public Health, Oswaldo Cruz paid him little attention, but Rocha Lima insisted until his proposal was accepted.

Awarded the gold medal at the Congress in Germany, the Brazilian doctor gained considerable exposure and embarked on a four-month journey abroad. He stopped in London, Paris, and New York, where he was dazzled by skyscrapers and subways. In Washington, he met with then President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919).

The letters depict the discovery of Chagas disease in 1909, by the Minas Gerais native Dr. Carlos Chagas (1879–1934), and his travels throughout northern Brazil, led by two doctors from Bahia, Artur Neiva (1880–1943) and Belisário Pena (1836–1906). “In the early decades of the twentieth century, the concept of health was central to developing the national identity,” says Lima.

In her master’s thesis defended in 2017 at Fluminense Federal University (UFF), archivist Camila Mattos da Costa examined the social mores and influence of etiquette manuals from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, using 21 love letters exchanged between Oswaldo Cruz and Emília, and another 31 letters exchanged between jurist Rui Barbosa (1849–1923) and his wife, Maria Augusta Viana Bandeira (1855–1948). On flowery stationary, the two men declared their yearning to be back with their respective wives. “Miloca!” Oswaldo Cruz once wrote to Emília, “this is the word I need to hear at all times.”