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The legacy of Johanna Döbereiner

A decisive contribution to Brazilian farming

“The contribution that Johanna Döbereiner made to Science and to Brazil was on an uncommon level, and that is why it won wide international recognition”.   This is the opinion of her friend and colleague, the geneticist, Crodowaldo Pavan. Infirm over recent years and suffering from breathing problems, Döbereiner died on October 5th, at the age of 75, in Seropédica, in the interior of Rio de Janeiro, in the same place where she had lived and worked for decades, at Embrapa’s National Agro-biological Research Center.

For various reasons, the prestige of this scientist has crossed the borders of the country. Her research opened the way for the development of our agriculture, notably in the cultivation of soybeans, making it more rational. In the growing of soybeans in Brazil, she demonstrated that it was possible to turn to certain kinds of bacteria that fix nitrogen, doing away with mineral fertilizer, which is expensive and harmful to the environment.  This has led Brazil to save around US$ 1 billion a year.

Döbereiner faced serious resistance to putting this process into effect. This is because, when soybeans started to be introduced to Brazil, the experience of the United States was followed, where acclimatization and genetic improvement was achieved through the heavy use, or even overuse, of nitrogenous fertilizers.  Her tenacity with her thesis – as she herself confessed – came from her curiosity in face of the “strange” fact that certain plants in Brazil – like bahiagrass and sugar cane – stay green and luxuriant, without anyone fertilizing them with nitrogenates.

Johanna was born in Czechoslovakia, in 1924, in the town of Aussig. Her family lived in Prague, as her father worked in the city’s German University. But ever since she was a girl she would involve herself in the toils of farming.  Only after the war, at the age of 21, was she able to start a new life, amidst the rubble of a destroyed and war torn Europe. She went to Munich and enrolled at an agronomy school. In the same year, she married Jurgen Döbereiner, her eternal companion.

Their families did not want to, nor could they, live in Germany. They were unsuccessful in immigrating to the United States, and friends facilitated their coming to Brazil.  She arrived here in 1950 and took Brazilian nationality in 1956.  She says: “I chose Brazil because I wanted to make the country my homeland”. She looked for a job in Rio de Janeiro, and had already sketched out her future – a place in the National Service of Farm Research. It cost her a lot to achieve what she wanted, since she even offered to work there without being paid anything.

This was the start of her academic upbringing, which almost all took place in Brazil, since it was only later that she studied and researched abroad. During more than 40 years, she dedicated herself passionately to her work, because this was the motivation for her life.

Her curriculum is an unending collection of information: a member of three Academies of Science – of Brazil, the Vatican, and the Third World; over 350 articles published in Brazilian and international magazines; guidance and supervision of dozens of graduate and post-graduate students, Brazilian and foreign; a lecturer in over 60 international seminars; various awards like the Bernardo Houssay (OAS, Agriculture, 1979), Unesco (1989), Frederico Menezes Veiga (Embrapa, 1976), Science and Technology of Mexico (1992); decorated by countless governments, including Brazil and Germany; doctorates  Honoris Causa from various universities around the world; and a consultant to many Brazilian and international organizations.

What she did, like the clues she left, prove the ability of Brazilian scientists to move forward in the knowledge of the mysteries of tropical farming, an area in which we have reached an enviable level in the world.  Such is the lesson we draw from the work of Johanna Döbereiner.

Marco Antônio Coelho, journalist – executive editor of the magazine, Advanced Studies, of the IEA/USP.