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The vital Brazil with a ‘Z’

Project recovers the memory of the scientist, sanitarian, biologist and doctor from Rio de Janeiro, with the publication of his complete works, which will also be made available through the Internet

Vital Brazil will no longer be simply a name on a street. From Rio, a movement has sprung up for recovering the memory of the scientist, sanitarian, pharmacist, biologist and clinical doctor, who worked intensely in São Paulo and in Rio at the end of the 19th century, and throughout half of the 20th century until his death in 1950 at the age of eighty five. The Vital Brazil Institute in the city of Niterói – established by the scientist – has this year edited a volume of more than one thousand pages, with his complete scientific works, and organized by the historian André de Faria Pereira Neto. The material is also available on the site of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), a piece of work carried out under a convention with the Vital Brazil Institute and equally under the responsibility of Pereira Neto (

The plentiful family, who in the greater part are concentrated in Rio, organized itself into a foundation called Casa Vital Brazil. Besides being responsible for the management in the scientist’s name, the foundation recently bought the house in which he was born, on the 28th of April 1865, in the town of Campanha in the state of Minas Gerais. There the Vital Brazil Museum is being organized, under the direction of his greatgranddaughter Rosa Esteves.

It is the beginning of the recovery of his memory and of the role that he played in Brazilian science and in the history of public health in the country. Finally, today, for new generations, outside of the family and of groups of faithful followers in the world of science, the scientist’s name means hardly anything at all. For example, in the Enciclopédia Mirador three paragraphs make up the mention of the scientist and one of them mentions him as an assistant to Emílio Ribas in the production of anti poisonous serum.

Reducing Vital Brazil to the level of an assistant to Ribas is lamentable. Although he had worked at a period in which the public sanitation movement brought together a number of famous figures in Brazilian science – such as Ribas himself, who played a major institutional role in public health at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, due to the fact of having occupied a position corresponding to the State Secretary of Health; Oswaldo Cruz, Adolpho Lutz and Brazil himself -, he maintained during all of his life his own position in research where snakes occupied the central role. The scientist discovered the specificity of the serum of snakes, which allowed for the development of the antidote serum, responsible for saving the lives of thousands in the interior of the country that was expanding its agricultural frontiers and had created a state of ecological unbalance responsible for the proliferation of poisonous ophidians. Furthermore, he developed medicines from his investigation into poisons, a research area which has been producing very significant results over the last few years.

However, there was a time during which the name of the Brazilian scientist was much better known that that of the institution that he created and directed, the Butantan Institute. Larger even than that of the Vital Brazil Institute in Niterói, his adventure into the world of business that produced more scientific research than money itself for its owner. After all, the scientist was born poor and died without any assets.

He was the breadwinner in the family and became a doctor thanks to his job as a police clerk, arranged through influential friends of his father. He built up the Butantan Institute, originally the Serum Therapy Institute of the State of São Paulo, from nothing – and within the time span of his scientific investigation and the production of serums, he managed to form a family of nine living children with his first wife, Maria da Conceição Filipina de Magalhães, with whom he lived almost all the twenty years that he remained in São Paulo. A widow, in 1919 he left for Niterói, where he began the formation, also starting from scratch , of his company – the Vital Brazil Institute . He got married again in 1920 to Dinah Carneiro Viana, thirty years younger, and had another nine children.

When he died in 1950, the family had to sell off the institute to the government of the State of Rio: the work was the scientist’s and survived under his shadow. Without the resources that he brought in for research and without the vitality to bring specialists and people together around his investigations, the institute would not move forward. As well as that, with eighteen children – nine were brought up within the bounds of the Butantan and the other nine simultaneously at the Niteroi Institute as well as his grandchildren from his first marriage -, there were only two who followed in his footsteps. One of them, Vital Brazil Filho, who was to become his successor, died of septicemia, after being contaminated during research with germs and microorganisms in the laboratory of the Niteroi Institute. Oswaldo Vital Brazil, a medical doctor and still living – who got his name in honor of Oswaldo Cruz – worked side by side with his father, but made his scientific career at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) in pharmacology.

If he did not leave money to his descendants, he filled them with a moral legacy which until today unites his uncountable grandchildren and great grandchildren. The family cultivates the feeling until today. The biologist Oswaldo Augusto Sant’Anna, the first great grandson, who was born only one year before the death of his great grandfather is the only one of his generation to become a scientist like him (in the generation of the grandchildren only two women followed their grandfather), keeps in a safe place a photo autographed by his great grandfather, with the following words: To Oswaldo Augusto, who when being born brought great joy to the heart of his great grandfather on being his first great grandson, wishing that he will follow in his footsteps”.

Nevertheless Sant’Anna doesn’t know if he followed his great grandfather’s footsteps towards science or simply embraced the cause of science through a humanistic feeling. “This was the great legacy of my great grandfather: he was a humanist, and the family vocation is not to science, but to the humanities”, says the biologist. “I grew up looking at the photo of “Grandfather Vital” and listening to stories about him”, says the sociologist and artist Rosa Esteves, who honored the scientist through the theme of her master’s dissertation at the Sociology and Politics School of the University of São Paulo, in 1984.

Antigenic specificity
On discovering, at the dawning of the 20th century, that a serum produced from the venom of the rattlesnake (Crotalus spp) did not produce any effect on a person poisoned by a jararaca snake (Bothrops spp), the scientist concluded that the human being has an immunological mechanism that responds in a different manner to various types of toxin. The toxin molecule combines with a specific molecule of immunoglobulin or of the receptors, with functional similarity, in order to give a precise immunological response.

“This is the basis of modern immunology”, says Oswaldo Augusto Sant’ Anna, the great grandson who today is a researcher at the Special Microbiology Laboratory of the Butantan Institute. According to the professor at the Biochemistry and Pharmacology Department of the Medical School of Ribeirão Preto of the University of São Paulo (USP), Nelson Vaz, the discovery of the specificity of anti poisonous serum by Brazil came together with all of the immunological research results that had occurred throughout the world at that time. A little later, Karl Landstein also arrived at the conclusion of the concept of antigenic specificity, but analyzing only a small number of particles.

Vital Brazil arrived at this conclusion by a meticulous experimental method. In 1897, after spending a year in the town of Botucatu, where he practiced clinical medicine after having graduated, he went to work with Adolpho Lutz at the Bacteriology Institute of São Paulo. One year afterwards, he was appointed to direct a new laboratory linked to the institute, which later transformed itself into the Serum Therapy Institute of the State of São Paulo, destined to produce serum against bubonic plague that was ravishing the country. From Botucatu, in the meantime, the reality of the Brazilian interior was brought to his attention: deaths from snake bites.

At the end of the 19th century, the studies on anti poisonous serum developed by the Frenchman A. Calmette prevailed. Vital Brazil tested the serum produced by the Pasteur Institute of France, simultaneously with the experiments developed at his own institute with the venom of the two Brazilian snakes that had registered the highest level of incidences in the interior of the State: the jararaca and the rattlesnake. In 1901, Brazil had already tested that Calmette’s serum, produced with the poison of the Indian snake named spitting cobra, did not produce a cure or prevent the effects after snake bites by the jararaca or the rattlesnake; and even more: that guinea pigs contaminated with the venom of the jararaca didn’t respond to the serums manufactured from the venom of the rattlesnake and vice versa. This was the so called “antigenic specificity”.

“This discovery had regional importance that can not be minimized”, explains Vaz. “The production of serum against different snake bites was fundamental for that time”, agrees Isaías Raw, the president of the Butantan Foundation. “The discovery of specificity of the serum was of great importance to public health”, says the biologist Maria de Fátima Furtado, from the Butantan’s Herpetology Laboratory. “The realization that the treatment of accidents involving snakes must be solved in each region, country or continent, was extremely important in combating the problem”, she adds.

Scientific elite
In the same manner as the sanitarians at the start of the century, who dealt with practical and emergency problems, upon Vital Brazil’s first discovery he dived into the problem that was to occupy his time: how to verify, with precision, the snake responsible for the poisonous accident? From there to the development of polyvalent serum, baptized by him as anti-ophidian serum, was swift: in November of 1901 the Serum Therapy Institute had managed to get the remedy to the population, done through the immunizers of the jararaca and the rattlesnakes, which covered almost the totality of the ophidian accidents that occurred in Brazil.

According to the organizer of his completed works, Pereira Neto, Brazil was totally involved with the charm of the snake. During the twenty years that he remained at the Butantan – the name later given to the Serum Therapy Institute -, the Brazilian scientist dedicated himself to snakes: he manufactured serums, carried out educational work to expand their use in the interior of Brazil, and simultaneously mapped out per region the poisonous accidents, researched the therapeutic properties of venom and proceeded with careful work in the classification of Brazilian snakes.

The development of medicines from venom is one of the branches of science by Vital Brazil that has had repercussions in current research. In this he was a forerunner, says Nelson Vaz. “The rattlesnake solute, the basis of the venom of the rattlesnake, was produced by the Vital Brazil Institute up until the 70’s”, says Aníbal Melgarejo, from the Institute. Botopril (botrocetin), made from the venom of the jararaca, acts as a blood coagulant and on the pain coming from cancerous and rheumatic origins. Brazil also produced medicine for the treatment of cancer.