The biologist Luiz Edmundo Magalhães often says that his advisor had three guardian angels over the course of his career: André Dreyfus, Harry Miller Jr. and Theodosius Dobzhansky (read the article on page 76). Paraphrasing Magalhães, one can say that the study of animal genetics in Brazil had four, who even if they were not angels at least were the driving force behind Brazilian genetics: the three that he mentioned plus Pavan himself. They were not the first to carry out research in this area in Brazil, but they were undoubtedly among those who contributed the most to its development and, moreover, who helped to institutionalize it. In one way or other, the four were involved in the establishment of courses, department ‘chairs’, lines of research and associations that brought together the country’s geneticists, such as the Brazilian Genetics Society (SBG), for example.
According to the geneticist Francisco Salzano, the founding of the SBG in 1955 was the culmination of a process that had begun at least 37 years earlier. He is referring to the year 1918, when genetics first began to be taught at what was then known as the Piracicaba School of Agriculture by three pioneers: Carlos Teixeira Mendes, Otávio Domingues and Salvador de Toledo Piza. Another important date is 1927, when André Dreyfus lectured in this field for the very first time at USP’s Medical School. Shortly thereafter, in 1933, Carlos Arnaldo Krug gave a short course in genetics at the Campinas Agronomic Institute (IAC). Also worth mentioning was the creation in 1934 of the Chair of General Biology at the School of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature (FFCL), at the recently founded University of São Paulo, along with that of Cytology and General Genetics at the Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture (Esalq), with the arrival of Friedrich Gustav Brieger from England.
In his master’s degree thesis in the History of Science, the biologist José Franco Monte Sião notes that during this initial period the development of genetics in Brazil was concentrated in three research centers: IAC, Esalq and USP’s FFCL. “One can say that during this era genetics research in Brazil was split into two lines,” he says. “One of them concentrated on plant improvements and was found at IAC and at Esalq. The second line of research, linked to the study of animals, mainly invertebrates, was taken up by the USP group.”
Dreyfus played a starring role in this second line. After qualifying as a doctor at the Rio de Janeiro Medical School, this young man who had been born in Pelotas ( state of Rio Grande do Sul), came to São Paulo in 1927 when he was offered an assistant professorship at the Medical School . He was one of the members of the group that founded USP. A very learned geneticist, he was less a researcher – although he had published a number of scientific papers, some of them together with Dobzhansky – and more of a uniting force and a motivator of the group that he gathered around himself in the General Biology Department at FFCL.
In an article published in the journal Estudos Avançados, in 1994, Antonio Brito da Cunha, who had been one of his assistants, speaks of the role of Pavan’s three guardian angels in the institutionalization of genetics in Brazil. “In his department [Dreyfus] received professors from various laboratories both in Brazil as well as overseas, thus contributing to their scientific and didactic training and, through his influence, to the setting up of their own laboratories”, he recounts.
According to Brito da Cunha, it was the level of admiration for Dreyfus and the esteem in which he was held that caused Harry M. Miller Jr., from the Rockefeller Foundation, to not only bring Theodosius Dobzhansky to the FFCL laboratory, but also to finance the purchase of equipment and the laboratory’s research. “Dreyfus, Dobzhansky, together with their friends and colleagues Brieger in Piracicaba, and Krug at the Campinas Agronomic Institute, and Harry M. Miller Jr. were the main ones behind the development of modern genetics in Brazil.”
This development was also helped by the adoption in 1947 of a full-time system at the state of São Paulo research institutions. Until then, in order to survive, the professors had to give classes in a variety of places, which made it difficult for them to carry out their actual scientific activities. The adoption of a full-time system helped consolidate genetics – along with other areas – as established sciences. Dreyfus, for instance, was able to stop teaching at other schools and could now concentrate exclusively on FFCL in order to dedicate himself to research. Because of pressure from the Rockefeller Foundation, which required that the laboratories and researchers it was financing should work full-time, the states of Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul and Rio de Janeiro also switched over to this system.
At the same time, Pavan returned from the USA and began to focus, together with Dobzhansky, on planning a major research project to be carried out using drosophilae in Brazil. According to Magalhães, the Russian-American scientist was interested in studying Brazilian species of drosophilae, which are present in much greater varieties relative to those found in the USA, which are much more uniform. This was how they reached an agreement to carry out the project between 1948 and 1949 with a number of participants not just from Brazil, but also from abroad, and with financial support of the Rockefeller Foundation. In addition to Dobzhansky and Pavan, it also financed the expansion of the USP group with Antonio Cordeiro, from Porto Alegre, Chana Malogolowkin and Antonio Geraldo Lagden Cavalcanti, from Rio de Janeiro, Hans Burla, from Switzerland and Martha Wedel, from Argentina.
Change of pace
For this and other jobs, in his book Um espaço para a ciên-cia – A formação da comunidade científica no Brasil [ ASpace for Science – The Formation of the Scientific Community in Brazil], Simon Schwartzman says that Dobzhansky is remembered as an extremely dynamic person and one who changed the slower pace of the Brazilians with his constant requests for study trips, funds and equipment. “Dreyfus not only competed with him but also became his main advocate and his right hand man,” writes Schwartzman. The author also recalls that a number of his students and assistants went to the USA to complete their training. “He trained an entire network of geneticists (working not only in São Paulo, but also in Porto Alegre, Brasília and the state of Paraná) specialized in genetic medicine, in the genetics of human populations and in cytogenetics”, he adds.
According to Magalhães, once all the upheaval caused by the carrying out of this project was over, FFCL’s Department of General Biology returned to normal, but now with a greater degree of enthusiasm. The project had been a success and the department had acquired a great deal of respect. It was a very young department and one that, in a very short space of time, undoubtedly reached world standards. “For sure, Dobzhansky’s participation was of great importance in setting the group’s scientific standard, but the team of Brazilians, led mainly by Pavan, knew how to respond to the challenge that it faced.”
However, the institutionalization of genetics was not limited just to São Paulo. In 1951, the first Brazilian center for human genetics research was set up in Curitiba, under the supervision of Newton Freire-Maia. In 1959, it was the turn of USP’s Medical School to include human genetics, under the leadership of professor Pedro Henrique Saldanha. Pavan was the president of the SBG for a two-year period, between 1958 and 1960. “Once again Pavan was contacted by Miller, who suggested that he should take an interest in the development of human genetics, an area that was just beginning to flourish on the global scene”, recalls Magalhães. “Pavan turned him down, but requested that the Rockefeller Foundation grant three overseas study scholarships for Brazilian geneticists, to enable Brazilian geneticists to specialize in human genetics.”
And this came true. The three scientists who were chosen were Freire-Maia and Salzano, two drosophilists, and Pedro Henrique Saldanha, from Rio de Janeiro, who had already moved to São Paulo and had begun, at his own initiative , research into human genetics. At the time, Oswaldo Frota-Pessoa, another drosophilist, now also working in human genetics, was already in the USA with a grant. “When they came back to Brazil, Pavan, as president of the SBG, created the Human Genetics Commission, to promote and develop this specialization, with financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation”, remembers Magalhães. “One could also state that the origin and development of this field of genetics were also the results of Pavan’s vision and effort.”Republish