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The teacher of many generations

At 93 years of age, the emeritus professor of Esalq participates in university life and continues to diffuse phytotherapy

MIGUEL BOYAYANProfessor Accorsi: the passion, study and divulging of medicinal plants MIGUEL BOYAYAN

At 93 years of age, professor Walter Radamés Accorsi continues showing good health and almost daily frequents the campus of the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq) of the University of São Paulo (USP) in Piracicaba. A teacher of various generations of agronomists, he continues on with the action to which he has dedicated himself since the  1920s: the disclosing of the benefits of Brazilian medicinal plants. Retired from Esalq in 1982, at 70 years of age through compulsory retirement, with a desire to bounce back, he spends his days within a group of rooms entitled the Medical Plants Sector, ceded by the institution as soon as he had stopped teaching and had received the title of emeritus professor. It is here that he continues studying and attending to people who seek him out in search of knowledge about medicinal herbs and plants. “I’m not a doctor, I can’t prescribe anything, but I am a promoter of phytotherapies”, he states.

“I consider popular medicine, which is the knowledge of plants from the practical point of view, as fundamental for phytotherapy.”

Phytotherapy has in fact been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), Since 1978, as a therapeutic modality. “Popular medicine indicates to the phytotherapist the part of the plant that is good for a determined problem”, he explains. “Consequently he’ll examine it in the laboratory and verify if in fact it’s a medicinal plant. If we were to begin to study the plant without any reference, the research work would have to start from the root and go to the flower.” For the professor, only a professionally trained doctor or therapist can give a prescription on plant preparations. “Brazil is the holder of the richest and most diverse medicinal flora on the planet, and this fact is not spoken about by us.”

Accorsi’s liking for the study of medicinal plants began during his university years when he entered, in 1929, onto the agronomy engineering course. It was his father who induced him to study agronomy. As well as being a property owner on which the growing of coffee predominated, in Dobrada, a location that today is a municipality close to the town of Matão, in the center of the state of São Paulo, the family possessed a sawmill, a tannery and a mechanics shop. Before entering Esalq, young Accorsi was sent to São Paulo, where he concluded his secondary schooling in 1927, and already by 1928 he was in Piracicaba to take the preparatory course for the college, which at that time did not belong to USP. He received the title of agronomy engineer in 1933, “as the third top student of my graduating class”, and his diploma, received in 1934, already had the stamp of USP that had just been founded and had incorporated the Esalq. The recent graduate was invited to be an assistant professor to the third chair denominated General and Descriptive Botany of professor Pedro Moura de Oliveira Santos. In 1936, he took his substitute professorship, and, in 1942 sat the exam for full professor. “I was a professor of botany. At that time we taught a smattering of everything: physiology, anatomy and systematic classification. I had to teach a little of each, which for me was excellent. Today everything is separated. As well as lecturing, I also passed on therapeutic information on our plants.”

Throughout all of these years, professor Accorsi never stopped considering the importance of pharmacology, which studies the extraction of the main active ingredients of plants. And, he believes that plants in nature have a lot to contribute to public health. “Germany has an advanced phytotherapy, the same as Russia, the United States and China..” For Brazil,  Accorsi states that various laboratories need to be installed in the country to study biodiversity and the production of phytotherapeutic medicines.

Pau d’Arco Tea
From his agenda full of invitations to give talks, especially for a man of 93 years of age, he highlighted his visit last year to Japan. The invitation and the accolade came from the company that produces tea from bark of the Pau-d’Arco (Tabebuia avellanedae), a tree found in various regions of South America whose bark is used for the treatment of cancerous tumors, anemia, stomach problems and as an analgesic. These properties of the Pau d’Arco made it popular and spread the information worldwide when the magazine O Cruzeiro published, in 1967, an interview with Accorsi. After this the plant was the target of various studies abroad. “In Japan they honored him because he had given all of the guidance concerning the plant when representatives of the company were in Brazil.” A few days before the accolade, the minister of agriculture, Roberto Rodrigues, a student of professor Accorsi’s at the start of the 1960’s, got to know of the event and phoned the Brazilian embassy in Tokyo so that they would send a delegate to the event as a special message for Accorsi. “I was very touched because the text was read in Japanese and in Portuguese in front of more than one thousand people”, he tells. This was the fourth time that the professor had gone to Japan. During the previous times he had given lectures at universities in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Born in the town of Taquaritinga (SP) on the 9th of October 1912, professor Accorsi has not eaten meat for sixty years. “I’m a herbivore.” The son of Walterly Accorsi, an administrator and pharmacist who commanded a treatment pharmacy and who sold natural products in the town of Piracicaba which had the professor’s name, he says that he takes lots of oatmeal soup, eats various seeds, sunflower amongst them, and, at times, eats fish. Wine he drinks regularly but… “one doctor prohibited me and another allowed me”, says the professor, who still does not know whether he will follow one or the other. The prohibition is because one of the medical doctors prefers that the professor first frees himself from a strong headache that has bothered him for many years. In order to maintain in physical shape, Accorsi works out at the university’s gym.

As a professor, he got to occupy the positions of director and vice-director of Esalq between 1951 and 1954. Throughout his more than 70 years of academic life he participated and still continues to participate in meetings of the congregation, which sets out the directive norms of Esalq and presents the triple list of candidates for holding the position of director of the institution, and principally those of graduation ceremonies. At one of them, in 1964, he was invited at the last minute to preside over the graduation ceremony of the group that had been receiving their diploma. “It was our graduation and the State Governor, Carlos Alberto de Carvalho Pinto, had been invited as the valedictory speaker, but the director was not in the town to preside over the ceremony”, says the professor from Esalq, Joaquim José de Camargo Engler, FAPESP’s administrative director, and an ex-student of professor Accorsi. The director, Hugo de Almeida Leme, had been nominated as minister of agriculture, and the vice-director could not come to the event. “So the conclusion was to get in touch with the school’s dean – the oldest professor – who already at that time was professor Walter Accorsi. When we phoned him he was already in his pajamas, just about to go to sleep”, says Engler. “But he came and presided over the ceremony. Afterwards, often when we met, he would say ‘remember that evening when I saved all of you?'”

Accorsi is the oldest living student and oldest professor of the school. “He is very special, dedicated and throughout the years has contributed to the improvement of quality in teaching at the Esalq”, says Engler. With two daughters, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, Accorsi keeps roaring on at the start of this 21st century in favor of his cause: “The plant sustains the biological life on the planet. If it has the food, why shouldn’t it have the medicines?”