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Oswaldo Frota-Pessoa: The lively prose of a master scientist

Listening to 88-year-old Oswaldo Frota-Pessoa, one of the pioneers of genetic medicine in Brazil, it becomes easy to understand why his qualities as a professor are celebrated by researchers of several generations who have been amongst his pupils. If in the classroom he availed himself of a delicious, multicolored narrative, full of wit and always punctuated by the broad smile with which today he still talks of his career as a scientist and popularizer of science, then to hear him, to learn with him, was certainly an experience interspersed with pleasure. It also becomes easy to conclude that the more than 700 articles to popularize science that he published in the Brazilian press between the 1930’s and the 1950’s were certainly nourished by the rare fineness and intelligence of his prose.

Born in the city of Rio de Janeiro, biologist, physician, teacher in secondary and higher education, an active researcher until the 1990’s, the author of 150 research articles and of many textbooks, Frota-Pessoa received, amongst others, the José Reis Award for Scientific Popularization of 1981-1982, the Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science, from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) in 1982, and the  Alfred Jurzykowyski Award, from the National Academy of Medicine, referring to basic research relevant for Medicine, in 1989.

Frota-Pessoa, whose lucidity and vigor are tricking the long time he has lived, spent two afternoons to talk at length to Pesquisa FAPESP magazine, always with excellent humor. Unfortunately, for editorial reasons, we are publishing below only the main passages of his interview.

I wanted you to begin by telling us of your experience in the popularization of science. How was it? In which year did it begin?
I left ready for you here the folders with all my articles for popularizing science, over 700 of them. I’m going to show you the first one I wrote.

“Why children look like their parents.” Straight off, you were already writing for the public at large in the Vamos Ler [Let’s Read] magazine, from Rio… Was it a magazine with a wide circulation?
It was like Veja (The most popular weekly news magazine in Brazil) today. I got it into my head that I ought to write for popularization, so what did I do? I wrote this article, and then I went to look for someone to publish it. I visited the offices of Vamos Ler, I said that I had an article, I asked whether they wanted to publish it… They thought I was an idiot, me, without any introduction… “Ah, leave it here, and so on…” I left it. And it was published. The first of the 700.

Did you work for A Manhã [The Morning], for a supplement of the Diário Carioca [Daily Carioca], and afterwards for the Jornal do Brasil as well?
Yes, a lot.

What was your education like before arriving at the university?
I had a very good science teacher at junior high school and high school, at the Art and Instruction Junior High School, in a suburb of Rio. And this teacher used to take us on excursions in the woods, to see animals, to bring them to the laboratory to be studied… That was at junior high school, before high school.

You would be 12, 13, 14 years old.
Precisely. And I made an alliance with three colleagues, we had the same tendency in that direction. Then, having finished secondary school, I went on to do medicine. And when I was in the first year of medicine, which I was doing because there was no course in natural history nor in biology, medicine was the nearest, I met one of these lads by chance, and he said “lad, you know? They’re opening a new university here, and there’s biology course.” And I said “it’s not possible! Where is it? Let’s go there, let’s do it.”

What school were you doing medicine at?
At the National.

Which afterwards became the Federal of Rio de Janeiro.
Yes, exactly. It was the only one there was in Rio. It used to be in Praia Vermelha.

And did you finish the course in medicine?
Yes, I did. I did the two together. The colleague I met by chance in Cinelândia and who brought the news that they had founded a new university was Newton Dias dos Santos. We went there to see, and there was a course in natural history. Well, this course thrilled us, because it was Anísio Teixeira who founded it. He is one of the patrons of teaching in Brazil. It was fantastic, what he did. After he stood out as a specialist in education in Bahia and in Rio itself, he was charged with starting a university in Rio, which was the capital of Brazil and did not have a science school. Then he made the University of the Federal District. But that’s nothing, the important thing is that he had talked to his advisors “look, we’re going to have to choose professors for all the courses of this new university, but I want the following: I want the best researcher in the area. He may never have given a lesson, because that’s how I choose. I want an individual who knows how to research”. So that was the way our professors were chosen, you understand? In the first botany lesson – in those days, it was the classification of plants and animals that was important…

Precisely. So our botany professor had never given a lesson. But he was a botanist, he had been a director of the botany part of the National Museum, he had marched with Marshal [Cândido] Rondon when the frontiers of Brazil were fixed, he had gathered plants all over Brazil, in short, he was already a great botanist. Alberto Sampaio, that was his name. Extremely modest, a gem of a person. In the first lesson, he came into the room – we were 18 students  – and said: “look, I’m the botany professor, and I’m thinking about how we can organize this course. I pointed out that here in the Federal District there are many families of plants that are still hardly studied. Why don’t you join together in groups of three or four, each one chooses a plant, a family, and do a review of the situation of the systematics of this family of plants in the Federal District” – So we took a liking to the thing, what we wanted was to get our hands on the stuff, and not keep listening to drivel from the professor. As a result, on that same day, he took us inside – the lesson was in the museum – to show us the herbarium that had a lot of rooms with metal boxes. In these boxes, there were folders with the plants that had been gathered 10 years, 50 years back, by those European botanists who came, traveled, gathered plants, classified them, and deposited them in the National Museum. We had a wealth of material to study that no student could dream of. And right next week, we were setting off for the forest, going up there in the region where, so its says in the herbarium, these plants were gathered.

What was family that you went to study?
The saxifragaceae. It’s the family of the hydrangea, European, by the way. But there are these Brazilian genera in the family, and it was those that we had to study, because they were the least known, and to do a review. As a result, while still a student, in the third year, I published my first scientific work, which was called ‘The saxifragaceae in the flora of Rio de Janeiro’.

When you talk about ‘up there’, are you talking about the Rio de Janeiro hills ?
There is a reservation in Teresópolis, the Campo das Antas, and going up the mountain there, near to the Dedo de Deus peak, in the Serra dos Órgãos ridge, we found plenty of things. Now, just to ease up, one incident: Newton and I did the excursion; then, night fell, and then we went to get our dinner, anything that we had taken with us, and we ended up finding out, sadly, that we hadn’t taken any sugar for the coffee. It was the first time that I had drunk coffee without sugar. And to this date I continue to drink coffee without sugar. The following morning, each of us got on his horse to be the first to discover the first saxifrage. Then we went to the Campo das Antas, which is a plateau after the climb. And we knew that it was on this plateau that the plant had been gathered 50 years ago, by some guy passing by there. Then we started to look at the trees, we reached that end of the plateau, then a little valley goes down, we stopped, looked at each other’s faces, each one wanting to be the first one to discover. So, what did I do? I leapt off the horse, got stuck into that undergrowth to discover where the saxifragaceae was. When I’m doing this, Newton shouts to me from up there, “Frota!”, “what is it?”, “does this Escallonia (which was the name of the genus) have pink flowers?”, I say “it does”, “and does it have so and so roots?”, I say “it does”, “then you have hitched your horse to it!”

And you, in a hurry, hadn’t even seen it.
Yes, in a hurry to be the first. So you see what the spirit was like. A student of the first year at university going on an excursion like this. Anísio Teixeira is our saint.

Was the University of the Federal District afterwards incorporated into the University of Brazil?
It was. That was the sad thing, because it went back to being what the ordinary university was, without this ground-breaking spirit, better in all senses. For example, Anísio Teixeira sent for several Frenchmen, for areas in which there was no specialist in Brazil. For example, philosophy. We had a lesson with the people from the Sorbonne , who came, contracted for one year, to give the course. It was marvelous. And with our familiarity as students, we inhaled from the professors their qualities, which is why we all came out with a vocation for teaching.

Did you finish natural history in 1938 and then kept on teaching and, at the same time, writing for the press?
Precisely. Anísio’s movement thrilled the secondary school teachers, in particularly a good number of the young. So we were making a policy of improving teaching. If we knew of a private school that wanted a teacher, the candidate would go there and put forward his name and would begin to teach properly, making people think.

You mean, it was fundamental to flee from the practice of learning by memorizing, and instead of this, to lead the youngster to think, to question ?
Traditional teaching to this date is based on the teacher talking and the pupil copying drivel to take the test with it memorized. We were doing the opposite. Like this: you set the problem, choosing one that is very interesting, and then do a debate. And you say “well, for the next lesson, you are going to read this passage here from the book, to apply it and see what conclusion you get”. In the next lesson, the boy arrives having read all that, and you say “what did you think about that question, how did you answer?”, “and you, how did you answer?”, “ah, I answered like this”, “do you agree”, “isn’t it”, etc?” Then, in a single lesson, you make the pupil observe an interesting fact and an interesting principle, which is not going to be the beginning of my lesson, but the end, when all this path has been covered.

That is, having followed the road from the problem, and with some theoretical reinforcements, he can arrive at new knowledge, acquired and debated together with the others.
And that’s the good part, because this is how his mind improves. Listening to what the teacher is saying, you’re bored, copying all that, to memorize it for the test, it doesn’t lead to anything. When, having concluded the Biology course, I was appointed professor in Rio, I got married straight away, for you to see how well off I was. There was a reverence for teachers. This took a fatal tumble with the increase of the population, demanding more and more education and getting less and less. At one point, the guy who was coming in to be a teacher, if he had any possibility of another profession, would migrate. And today, then? An article recently came out in Veja that asked “how do the secondary school students treat their teachers?” A classroom now is a disgrace, the teacher is there without knowing what to do. He an inexperienced guy, because the experienced ones are not dumb enough to go there, with the pupils tearing him apart, smoking pot, swearing? I mean what present-day teachers are living through is a horror.

Were you hired as a teacher for the secondary school course in a public school?
Yes, in Rio. When we graduated, we were appointed automatically, because we were the first intake of teachers educated by the university. And for 20 years, I was a secondary school teacher.

 And afterwards, how did your career as a researcher develop and your coming to USP?
It’s simple. I was educated by the University of the Federal District, and it was transferred to the University of Brazil. On that occasion, I was teaching at the secondary school and doing a course in Manguinhos, at the Oswaldo Cruz Institute. As a biologist, I was interested in doing this course, which relived the experience of Oswaldo Cruz. And then I was invited to be an assistant professor in biology at the University of Brazil. One day, at lunchtime, I was at the Oswaldo Cruz Institute, and they said “listen, there a formidable American arriving here, with a drosophila genetics deal…” It was [Theodosius] Dobzhansky. Then I went to my professor from there, and said “what the devil is drosophila?” He replied to me that “they are some little flies they have there in the United States, but we don’t have them here.” Well, my doctoral thesis was about the Brazilian species of drosophila. Carrying on, I got to know of Dobzhansky’s arrival in Paulo. Then, [André] Dreyfus, who was the father of the idea of bringing him, and [Crodowaldo] Pavan, who was going to be his advisor, decided to do a book with a classification of the drosophilae.

At this time, you already had a certain curiosity about genetics.
Yes, I already knew about genetics. On the biology course, which was a bit itinerant, with each discipline being given in a different building, according to the professor who was teaching it – we would go to the National Museum, to the Oswaldo Cruz, to Praia Vermelha… –, one day, Lauro Travassos, a zoology professor who stayed in Manguinhos, arrived at the lesson and said “look, genetics was founded by an individual whose first published work I have here. I’ve taken copies for you, and in the next lesson we’re going to do a debate on this business”.

It was Mendel’s work with peas.
It was. Did you understand the period we were in? Genetics was beginning to arrive here. And Travassos asked a colleague to teach the methodological part. It was then I began to take more interest in genetics. At some time later, Dreyfus arrived in Rio to visit Travassos, who was his friend. Dreyfus afterwards brought Travassos for a spell that lasted a few years in São Paulo. Anyway, at this point, Dreyfus asked Travassos to indicate two former students to go to São Paulo and check the classification keys for species of Brazilian drosophilae that Pavan had done. Then I, who still didn’t know what a drosophila was, but had my claim to being a good taxonomist, was one of those indicated. Pavan enjoys telling the story of my arrival in São Paulo to tease cariocas (people born in the city of Rio de Janeiro), you know. He was in a little lab with Dobzhansky and the microscopes, studying the flies. Then he says that I arrived, opened the door, and said “I’m Frota-Pessoa”. It’s a tease to say that cariocas are big talkers. Then, ten minutes afterwards, I was at the microscope seeing a drosophila for the first time, to check the classification key. “Has it got two antennas?”, “it has”, “has it got this and that”… “Then it’s so and so.” What I had done up there on the mountain with hydrangeas, I spent 15 days in São Paulo doing with drosophilae. The little work was published afterwards in a leaflet of the department that had helped the geneticists a lot to study the drosophilae. Then that’s how I became engaged. “This story of ‘I’m Frota’ was the first act of assuming the position of a researcher. At that point, then, I had a scholarship to the United States.

The scholarship was from the Rockefeller Foundation?
It was.  The Rockefeller Foundation was marvelous for Brazil and for the development of science, and several of us, in genetics and in other specialties, went to the United States thanks to it. For me, there were two years of work there with Dobzhansky at Columbia University in New York, and when I finished the scholarship, I was a drosophilist. When I was about to come back to Brazil, I get a call from the Pan-American Union (the Organization of American States), of Washington. And the guy told me the following: he wanted to hire me. I say “but how? I’m finishing this scholarship with drosophilae?”, and he said “it’s for the teaching section”, “but what do you mean?”… So now, the story takes a backward step, like this: some time before, Anísio Teixeira had decided to publish textbooks and invited me to publish biology?

That book from which so many of us Brazilians from the 1950’s onwards studied biology.
That’s it! You see, I was in a dilemma. I was recently married, and Bete needed a bit of time to adapt to the change of country. I was disconcerted, but I ended up going there. They wanted to found a department to improve teaching in Latin America. So I said the following to the fellow who was the director there of that section: “look, I’m finishing a scholarship to go back to Brazil, and to work on a biology book there” – Anísio’s idea – “for teachers. So that I’ve got to go”. Then the guy said “no, wait a minute, you can do that here”. So I spent two years in Washington and I managed to finish the textbook thanks to that.

That is, after Columbia University, you stayed two years in Washington.
Yes. I was hired because they thought they had to have someone responsible for the educational part. And as I said I had a book to write, he thought it was great. By the way, it was funny, because I started to go as a public servant, I would go in at 8 o’clock and leave  at 6 pm; then I say “heck, I’m spare here, I’m not doing anything, because the guy hasn’t given me any job to do.” Then I went to talk to him, “look, I’m here to promote the development of science in teaching, and I haven’t had anything to do yet. How can I do something?” Then I presented him with a program, that I was going to organize a course in Nicaragua, for example, train 15 teachers and put them into 15 countries… He said “oh, that’s great and so on”, and I was happier. A week after that, nothing had happened, and I went back to him, “look, I’ve been here a week and not done anything so far, because I need to know whether you have a budget for…”, “oh, there is, the budget is coming, and so on”… He held me back for some three months without me doing anything. He didn’t have a budget. So this wishy-washy situation went on, until one day I said “listen, I’m here without doing anything, and I’m not serving well the institution that’s paying me. I’ve got a book to write on biology teaching for secondary school teachers, could be in Brazil or the whole of Latin America”. “That’s marvelous! That’s just what you’re going to do”. So I was damned lucky. The result was that I stayed there the two years finishing the book I had promised for Brazil’s Ministry of Education.

Do you still have a copy of the first edition of this book with you?
Yes, it was called Biology in the Secondary School. We did an edition in the ministry, which did the distribution itself, afterwards the government changed and the publisher went to ask the ministry to let him do it as an ordinary book. Then he published several editions.

When did you come back?
At the end of those two years waiting for the budget that never arrived, Pavan appeared and simply wanted to invite me to come to USP. Once again, I was in that ‘to go or not to go’, and I ended up going. Then I came back to Rio, and a few months afterwards I moved to São Paulo. Straight to USP, straight to Dreyfus’s laboratory. And as a professor in the biological sciences course. I arrived and I began with a question, which at that point I, like the other, such as Newton Freire-Maia, could not avoid. It was the following: “If you are studying the genetics of a wretched little fly, why don’t you study the genetics of man?” So several of us turned our coats. Including him and me.  He still went to Curitiba and founded the drosophila genetics laboratory, but straight afterwards he began to work with the human part, and the same happened with me here.

How was this episode?
It was very simple and quick. Because as soon as I arrived here, I said “heck, what do I do now? I’ve got two specialties”. Because in Rio I had already fiddled with human genetics. I had already visited, near Brasilia – which in those days did not exist –, a community with endemic goiter, and I had certain ideas about that, what determines endemic goiter and so on. However, I did my doctorate on drosophila genetics. From then on, my researches turned to the medical genetics side, and as I had graduated in medicine, also in 1941, this helped me to develop genetic counseling.

Something that was totally new, wasn’t it?
It was. Freire-Maia was the first, he was interested in the case of a genetic disease in Curitiba, abandoned the drosophilae, and became practically the founder of genetic medicine in Brazil. Afterwards, with a small difference in time, I got my medical genetics laboratory functioning here. And then, as in any place where there is a new idea, my disciples came, and now they have theirs, as if they were my grandchildren.

But why did you become interested in genetic counseling? The idea was to study the alterations, the resulting genetic diseases, the risks of certain marriages, and then, as you were a doctor, you also wanted to counsel people in the sense of explaining to them?
No, it’s not because I was a doctor. If I hadn’t been a doctor, I would have followed the same trail, as was the case of Newton Freire-Maia. But the genetic counseling laboratory was the great invention, because it was there that we were attracting to the outpatient department the families who had members with diseases that were apparently genetic.

And, at that moment, which were the diseases that you imagined you would be studying?
Oh, well… Mongolism and a series of rare, though important diseases, which came to be the object of our work and that of other groups. There was the work of describing – look at the old systematics there, taxonomy – those new entities.

In an interview that she gave us (Pesquisa FAPESP, issue 110, April 2005), Mayana Zatz praised highly your special capacity, as a teacher, of leading the young researcher to solve problems, and also your personal dealings with the patients in genetic counseling. At bottom, it’s a question in both cases of leading people to reflect about problems, isn’t it?
Yes, precisely. And it’s not so much with the person that has the risk we are talking about. The one that has the risk is already the object of our calculations of risk. In general, it’s the following: the mother, the father, the uncle or other relative takes us to a child that has a strange disorder, something a bit unknown, sometimes, and you want to know the risk of that happening again with another child. The genetic counselor, like me, has to develop the skill of explaining clearly what this and that is, without distorting the subject.

I’m going to go back a bit to the popularization  of science. Did you never receive anything for your work in the press?
The contribution from the press to my earnings was, in general, ludicrous, but is gave me a lot of satisfaction. My main source of income was teaching.

From 1938 to 1951, your collaboration was uninterrupted, and it even took place for a long period on a parallel basis in A Manhã and in the Jornal do Brasil. How did you arrange time for so much?
That’s what I wonder. What I wanted was to illustrate a scientific supplement of one of the newspapers that lasted more or less three years. So here it is: Science for everybody, which came out every last Sunday of the month. Bernardo Esteves has just done a dissertation at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) about this. Apparently, he was enchanted by the subject.

You retired from USP in 1982, but carried on working there.
At that point, I had begun to research into psychiatric genetics: to what point mental diseases are determined by genes or by the environment, or by both.

Which disease interested you most?
My interest was mainly in manic-depressive psychosis, which they call bipolar disorder today, because the person remains for one period very excited, and spends another one depressed, like that all the time. In those days, some new studies on treating the disease had appeared. So then I used a method from genetics, which is to try to find in the families how the disease shows itself. I took forward in some articles research in which we were studying the patient and his family. In some cases, it was only the patients that had a symptom, in isolation, and, in other cases, several other people from the family showed symptoms. And amongst these, alcoholism was an important manifestation.

Hence you concluded…
I can’t speak dogmatically, because it depends on the size of the sample, but there was a suggestion that in families that more cases of alcoholism were registered, there really were more cases of bipolar disorder. That would need more research.

But you did go so far as to advocate that manic-depressive psychosis had genetic bases, effectively?
Of course.

You also wrote an important book about schizophrenia.
It’s a general review about schizophrenia in which I write an article, and other psychiatrist colleagues also write. But to conclude on popularization of science, I wanted to say that when I came to São Paulo, I practically stopped writing for newspapers. For me, the great champion in this was José Reis. He was the founder of the popularization of science in Brazil. He was the creator of a style that is appropriate for popularizing science.

What was your last contribution in terms of textbooks?
It was the Coleção Os Caminhos da Vida [Collection The Ways of Life], from Editora Scipione, in which Cintia Fragoso and Maria Angélica Santini collaborated. Intended for secondary schooling, it is made up of three volumes and one teacher’s manual: 1. Structure and Action; 2. Ecology and Reproduction; 3. Genetics and Evolution; and the Teacher’s Manual. In harmony with the proposals of the PCNs (Parameters of the National Curricula), the collection gives priority to present-day themes relating to the life of the students and of the country. The texts show renovating strategies that encourage the students’ autonomy and suggest experiments, projects, videos and searches on the Internet.