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The surprising american part of USP

A study relates the importance of the Rockefeller Foundation in the consolidation of the Brazilian academic model

BETTMANN/ CORBIS/ STOCK PHOTOSJohn Rockfeller with his wife Martha: riches wealth as a divine concession that must be redistributedBETTMANN/ CORBIS/ STOCK PHOTOS

There is a part of history on the foundation of the University of São Paulo (USP) and of the consolidation of the academic model prevalent in Brazil that until today is unknown by the majority of people, nor even contemplated by official literature. Classical literature states that USP was created in 1934 through a decision made by the then governor of the state of São Paulo, Armando de Salles Oliveira, and had as its intellectual mentor Júlio Mesquita Filho, symbol of the São Paulo elite of that time. The university brought together schools already in existence, such as the Law School (established in 1827), the Polytechnic School (from 1891) and the Medical School (from 1912). The novelty was the creation of the School of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters, which had illustrious and renowned professionals brought from France, Italy and Germany to teach at the new institution.

The work of these foreigners linked to human sciences, above all the French, remained as fundamental markers for the consolidation of Brazilian academic research. What is ignored, is that, long before the Europeans, the Americans of the Rockefeller Foundation had already associated themselves with the Medical School of São Paulo to develop there a medical school whose model would become a world reference and would spread to all of the other medical schools in the country. “History says only that the university was created, based on French models, which are really those that reign in humanities.

However, in the biomedical sciences, this history is different”, explains professor Maria Gabriela Marinho, author of the book North Americans in Brazil – A History of the Rockefeller Foundation at the University of São Paulo (1934-1952). “There was another important group in the university, directly associated to scientific philanthropy and which gave another side to science, which up until then was seen as a decoration of the Brazilian elite.”

Powerful force
Maria Gabriela’s book was the result of her doctorate thesis, defended in 1999 at the School of Philosophy, Human Sciences and Letters of USP. FAPESP supported the publication of the study with a financial grant of R$ 3,500. The professor had previously studied the performance of the Rockefeller Foundation in Brazil in her master’s thesis defended at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). “In the first part, I studied the arrival of the Foundation in Brazil and the beginning of its work at the Medical School”, she explains. “In my doctorate thesis, I concentrated on analyzing how the work of the Rockefeller Foundation influenced the formation of USP.”

The professor explained that the role of the Rockefeller Foundation in Brazil cannot be ignored, as it was a powerful force that accelerated the development of various areas already contemplated through local initiatives, but were developing at a very slow rhythm. The arrival of investments of the American Foundation in Brazil gave a faster rhythm to these initiatives and spread through the dominant elite of the time a different conception of science, as a social force incorporated into public practices. “The Foundation’s work is a watershed only slightly studied and extremely important in the process of the institutionalization of science in Brazil”, argues the professor.

In order to understand the dimension of the American participation in the formation of the Brazilian academic model, one needs to understand the workings of the scientific philanthropy practiced by the Rockefeller family. Proportionally, the family could be considered the richest that has existed in the world until today. The fortune that the Rockefellers accumulated is greater than that of Bill Gates in today’s terms. The businesses of the family were linked to oil and coal mining, at the time of the affirmation of oil as the fuel for the whole world.

The Foundation has officially existed from 1913, but its first philanthropic actions date back to thirty years before that. The magnate John Rockefeller was a Baptist and within his Protestant logic, he understood wealth to be a divine concession that be must paid back through charity. At the beginning of the 19th century, the tycoon’s deeds had as yet not taken on large proportions, but as his fortune kept growing, his donations grew proportionally. Close to the end of the century, Rockefeller invited the ministry of the Baptist Church to look after his philanthropic business enterprise.

The first great undertaking of the then institutionalized the Rockefeller Foundation was to fork out resources towards the creation of the University of Chicago. Over a thirty-year period, the Foundation bankrolled the university. During this time, the Rockefellers also financed various other isolated items, such as medical research and a large program to combat an outbreak of hookworm disease in the south of the United States. This campaign was a success and contributed to the association of the Foundation’s name to public health issues. The thinking that marked the performance of Rockefeller during this period was that illness and poverty were intimately related, although it was believed that illness was the cause of poverty and not vice versa. The Foundation defended the idea that to have a prosperous society one needed to fight disease.

Continental action
Up until 1913 the actions of the Foundation were restricted to the United States, but after 1910 specialists realized there was no frontier for illness and if there was not to be action throughout the whole continent, the diseases could always come back. Consequently, commissions began to be organized that went out on missions to the world to identify institutions that could be supported through the Foundation to set up research groups that would work in the areas that they would judge to be priorities.

One of these commissions arrived in Brazil in 1915. “In São Paulo, the Americans came across a model sanitary system”, explains Maria Gabriela. ” Due to the disease that had begun to pop up n the farming communities and the ports, the elite of the state had already rallied to organize the state’s sanitary service.” The Rockefeller commission found a very favorable base in the city of São Paulo capital that matched their perspectives of creating schools that could become a reference throughout the world.

The researcher explains that there were in Brazil, at that moment in time, three medical schools: in Salvador, established in 1808, shortly after the Portuguese crown court had come to the country; Rio de Janeiro, founded in 1812, when the Royal family moved there; and São Paulo, founded one year before the arrival of the commission. The two first followed French influence, whose tradition was clinical – they worked above all on the symptoms. Investments in research and pre-clinical examinations were part of a tradition developed very quickly in the United States and characteristic of Germany. In this manner, the São Paulo school, which was just beginning its activities, was the only alternative to develop this work linked towards prevention.

The agreements on the foundation of the Medical School began at that moment. In the beginning the investments were directed towards the creation of a hygiene department, which afterwards turned into an institute, and later into the School of Public Health. All the buildings complex located on Doutor Arnaldo Avenue, in the city of São Paulo, including the Hospital das Clínicas, were built with means from the Foundation.

Parallel to this, negotiations got going to reformulate the academic structure in the school itself. The curriculum was also modified, with the pre-clinical disciplines gaining more emphasis. The number of students was restricted to fifty per class and the professors had, by obligation, to work full time at their disciplines, thus becoming researchers. These innovations made up part of the conditions that the Foundation imposed as a condition for their investments. The resources invested in the Medical School at that time rose to US$ 1 million. “Besides this money, they spent another US$4 million only for combating yellow fever”, reveals the researcher Maria Gabriela.

The French
When the University of São Paulo was founded in 1934, the mission of the Rockefeller Foundation was already at an end. “However, the North American model remained strong in medicine and afterwards ended up spreading itself into other areas”, she explains. “Whilst the French produced academically and philosophized, there were interlocutors of the Americans who acted upon the university board, moving the cogs of the university machine and effectively modeling its structure. A good part of the policy of the implantation and consolidation of USP was controlled by these people.”

The French presence in the consolidation of USP, according to the professor’s study, is very well marked by one event. “Three years after their arrival at the School of Philosophy, the institution entered into a crisis. The moment passed and various of the names that had been brought out from France for the foundation of the school went away”, explains Maria Gabriela.

“Only after World War II, starting in 1945, did the North American presence begin to be recognized. The logic that has been dominant starting from the 50’s and 60’s – and which remains until today – is exactly the one brought by them”, she stated. “That idea of ‘to know with little interest’ ended and the search became to find scientific excellence, which is going to be associated with a gain in productivity and to another rationality, for its part, associated directly to the pragmatism of the American society”, concludes the researcher Maria Gabriela Marinho.

The project
North Americans in Brazil – A History of the Rockefeller Foundation at the University of São Paulo (1934-1952) (nº 01/00940-6)Modality Publication Assistance; Researcher Marília Gabriela S. M. C. Marinho;
Investment R$ 3,513.00