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Bernardo Houssay: my country will be a scientific power

National and Latin American pride, our Nobel Prize worked tirelessly with the utmost of its strength to consolidate and prestige Argentine knowledge. Making homeland was making science for Houssay.

Bernardo Houssay

“ Science is not expensive, expensive is ignorance,” repeated Professor Bernardo Houssay, Nobel laureate in Physiology and Medicine in 1947, who was able to work abroad for his unparalleled talent and instead decided “vehement to see my country overtake so that someday could be at the level of the first nations of the world and firm conviction in the usefulness and justice of scientific work”.  “ Work is the cheapest fun,” was another of his headline phrases heard by the hundreds of disciples who passed through their laboratories of the Faculty of Medicine and the Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine.  Houssay devoted himself tirelessly to research and the formation of brilliant minds, including two future Nobel laureates, Louis Leloir and, indirectly, Cesar  Milstein .  “ Tenacious and concentrated work is a powerful force, like the flame of a torch that applied at a fixed point of the hardest steel plate ends up softening and drilling it, while walking from one point to another does not even warm it.”  Any path leading to national knowledge will pass through the thought of a true builder of the Fatherland from science and work, Bernardo Houssay.  

 Bernardo Alberto Houssay was born in Buenos Aires on April 10, 1887, when UNESCO established Science and Technology Day . The youngest son of French immigrants came to the world on Viamonte Street, and after a short passage through Lanús, the Houssay settled in the neighborhood of Almagro, in current Acuña de Figueroa street at 400. “Because I started early I have been able to work intensively for more years; they helped me a good health, a solid endurance for physical and intellectual work, a lot of speed at work, quite tenacity, a regular memory, a lot of taste for study and reasoning, curiosity and craving to know, and a  clear awareness of my ignorance,” said Houssay of the traits that appeared early in childhood and transformed him into a genius child and an exmio sportsman, standing out in football, rowing and athletics — all his life he kept in his pocket a medal won as a marathon at age 18 .  At the age of thirteen he graduated from the Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires, surprising with his extensive knowledge of literature and science, partly stimulated by his father's generous family library.  They say that when he accompanied his son in admission to the prestigious Buenos Aires school, the rector doubted the applicant's age, and Dad Alberto restructured: “Going for twelve”. Bernardo was nine and they had to bring a bench to him every time he played a lesson written on the board in the classroom.   Since he was not old enough for medical school, he entered the pharmacy career and was received at 17. “ Actually my vocation was for Natural Sciences, but I studied Medicine because I thought it was a better way to get to them, although I also liked the medical career very much.   The reasons why I did not study medicine from the beginning were because it seemed to me that I would receive me too young and, above all, because the pharmacy would allow me to make a living while studying Medicine. The study of the pharmacy had the advantage that gave me much more intense knowledge of chemistry than those acquired by doctors at our university,” said Houssay, a knowledge that was fundamental in  his work at the Bacteriological Institute and in the first campaigns of vaccination against viper poisons in 1916, the doctor who out of pocket paid booklets for the prevention of day laborers in El Chaco . He entered the Faculty of Medicine and with the tutelage of Dr. Horacio Piñeiro, pioneer of experimental medicine, began his studies in physiology in 1907, culminating with his doctorate in 1911, “Studies on the action of pituitary extracts: essays on the physiology of the lobe later on the pituitary gland”, the basis of consecratory studies by the Nobel Nobel — and on diabetes, a disease with which his influential father died in 1909.

In the years of the institute that Carlos Malbrán promoted he would meet the doctor in chemistry María Angelica Catán, whom he was married in 1920, mother of his three children, Alberto Bernardo, Hector Emilio and Raúl Horacio, who later studied Medicine as their father.  At that time his dedication was full-time to research, something unusual but which ended up being the necessary model in the development of an incipient local science,  and he left the practice of medicine he practiced in the hospitals of Clínicas and Alvear, and the positions in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Bacteriological Institute.

In 1922 Houssay received the National Science Award for his work on the physiological action of pituitary extracts while working and teaching at his already famous internationally Institute of Physiology of the University of Buenos Aires. There he receives fellows from all over the world, without distinction of race  or sex,  including later, the specialist in the fight against cancer,  Dr. Christiane Dosne, whom Houssay promoted in the National Academy of Sciences, being the first female academic.  “ He arrived early at the Institute in the late twenties, from Viamonte Street -to 2700, now Casa Museo Bernardo Houssay, making the journey on foot,” recalled in 1971 the doctor in chemistry Venancio Deulofeu, and brought up that in his epochs as students Houssay walked the 90 blocks between his house in Almagro and the French Hospital. Every day,  “I went straight to his desk to see what was new and walked around the Institute, often starting at the basement. At the end of his homework, around six in the afternoon, he would return home if he had no other commitments. When I walked through the Institute, he was interested in the development of each one's research... When I arrived at the Institute, Dr. Houssay was practically not taking a vacation, it seemed like a waste of time. This is the origin of the later anecdotes, which are real, when he began to take a break with his family outside Buenos Aires -in Mar del Plata-  More than one person who continued to work on the holiday received a greeting card, where he also told him some phrase similar to the following “you are very lucky to be able to continue your research ”” This phrase also represented a defense of exclusive dedication at the University,” concludes Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Exact Sciences on a complex period for Houssay, who the front of the chair begins to receive questions from students because of their “rigorous methods and high demands”, and is even physically assaulted in 1926.

Bernardo Houssay

As Pablo von Stecher points out, the following decade Houssay strengthens the ties of Argentine researchers with the world, and his scientific conferences are praised at La Sorbonne and Harvard.  Houssay made the forefront in scientific dissemination without flags or patents, and in inter-American cooperation, “we must cooperate for the scientific advancement of Latin American countries, as if it were Argentina's own. Peoples of similar origins and problems, our destinies, reputation and evolution are largely parallel. The advancement of one of them benefits the others,” he argued . At that American university, he read a speech where he apologized for his poor English, although he remarked that all Americans must speak in the languages of their countries in scientific forums, or instead understand Spanish, Portuguese and English, at a time when studies were nununaised. Latin Americans—and collected the torch of the Montes de Oca and Wilde who claimed in 1870 an original Argentine science committed to our reality, in the middle of the Yellow Fever, without copying foreign models.

In 1934 Houssay conceived the Argentine Association for the Progress of Sciences (AAPC), “improving scientific research in Argentina, increasing and expanding existing centers and creating an environment conducive to such high disciplines”, in response to contemporary politicians who claimed that there was no national science, on a sad background of ministers who sent researchers to “wash the dishes” This private body had as its task to guide national scientific research in a selfless manner, and to collaborate in the training young people through scholarships and improvement stays “Since the creation of the AAPC, Houssay's word is increasingly forceful in a series of topics related to the challenges and commitments — moral, patriotic and professional — of researcher”, concludes von Stecher, in a clear antecedent of the operation of the future Conicet.

“I presume that you have wanted to adhere to the silent work of those who fight, in the sometimes unknown sphere of their action, to develop the cultivation of science and research in our country,”  said one surprised Houssay to the National Academy of Letters, where he is incorporated in 1939, “Your choice, superior to my deserves, recognizes in the seemingly arid scientific literature the force of truth in one of the highest expressions of culture...  in the young and still in formation countries, personalities descollantes are forced to act in various fields and in various tasks. This was the case of Dr. Ángel Gallardo, who was an engineer, naturalist, professor, man of science, university leader and public man. Applied for the performance of various activities in outstanding positions, its exceptional merits indelibly pointed out the light and fruitful footprint of its passage, wherever he applied his vast knowledge and moral righteousness, predominant feature of his beautiful character”, said the scientist fico, also founder of the Argentine Society of Biology.


 Nobel laureate, science has no homeland, but the man of science has it 

On June 4, 1943, a coup d'état ends with the fraudulent government of Castillo and the nationalist sectors occupy spaces of power, including at the  University, “in true democracy everyone has the right to learn, but the duty to learn well... there must not be the right to learn badly, or only for selfish or purely personal satisfactions,” said those who advocated universities, Houssay also fundamental in other high-school houses in the country such as Rosario, as the privileged research centers reatrofed with the excellence of teaching.   In October Houssay signed a request for “effective democracy and Latin American solidarity” and ends up on the street, without his beloved chair with more than 30 years of ownership, in the company of several collaborators. He immediately receives a succulent offer from the  National Institute of Health in Bethesda, USA , and rejects them according to his thought, “ Science has no homeland, but the man of science has it. For my part, I did not accept teachers' positions in the United States and I do not intend to leave my country, because I aspire to fight to help it ever become a scientific power .” He then founded the Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine in Palermo — today in Belgrano-, which will become... in the new obligatory step of the world's scientists, and would deliver pioneering work in endocrinology, nutrition, pharmacology, experimental pathology, adrenal glands, pancreas, hypertension, diabetes and other areas covered by physiology.

“ That man in his tableado overalls who received the Nobel Prize, who had shook hands to kings, princes, presidents and scientists in the world, had no problem listening to even the youngest of beginners. Every Saturday at 11 o'clock the researchers met to tell about the novelties of their own works or those published in the scientific journals.   In that area of respect, joy and suffering, I learned the message of science for life,” recalled Dr. Edmundo Ashkar, another outstanding disciple of Houssay in biophysics, “” It is necessary to know in the new times, the methodologies and applications of basic knowledge, will be essential for generations of scientists to come,” said Houssay when he awarded him for a study trip at MIT in the United States in the 1960s.

 In 1945, the Peronist government restored him to his chair, but the new university law actually retired him in 1947. That year he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for the discovery that the anterohypophysis regulated not only growth but also carbohydrate metabolism. With his usual humility in a feast given by the Argentine Medical Association, no official institution, not even the UBA, joined the scientist who had argentinized world science, putting Latin America on the map ,  Houssay prefers to talk about tomorrow,   “ I was fortunate enough to have exceptional disciples because of their scientific ability and their moral height. They dictated chairs and led prestigious institutes, investigated and trained researchers, carried out a scientific work of international hierarchy that gave fame and prestige to our country. ciles, even though this unjustly brought them all sorts of heartfelt. I am proud to have had and have such disciples whose intellectual, moral and human personality honors our country.”

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“True patriotism is in working correctly and subjecting its result to global discussion, which will show the real importance of our studies; it is also in teaching the method and stimulating love of science to those around us; in not fear of sacrificing hours and postponing his studies so that the disciples may be formed; in stimulating criticism, in demanding respect and help for those who are worth; in fighting to correct the bad or deficient.  The patriotic thing is to create a good local, serious scientific environment, where we study the objective problems that are from all continents and with great attention those of our country,” said Bernardo Houssay concerned about the trickle of brains that can be traced since the thirties.   With the self-called Libertadora Revolution he recovered the Institute of Physiology of the UBA in 1955, and began a strong campaign for the National State to allocate budget to science. In good treatment with de facto president Aramburu, along with fraudulent president Justo, the only ones who treated the scientist,  Houssay in 1958 founded the National Council for Scientific and Technological Research (Conicet), along with Deulafeu, Eduardo Braun Menéndez and Ernesto Galloni, among others. Houssay will be its first president and one of the mentors of the career of scientific researcher in the country.  In his conference on the “Mission and Responsibility of the Scientific Researcher” (1961), Houssay highlights vocation, idealism, disinterest, generosity, between other necessary qualities or requirements of the researcher, but also proposes “the ability to write well, write down the results orderly, examine them critically and frequently, which articulate in the same logical line the virtues of correct and organized writing with those about a demanding self-assessment,” says scientist Leonardo Mac Lean.

“It was at that time that I received interesting proposals from abroad and was tempted to accept them. Our pessimism ceased when in 1958 during the Aramburu government the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research was created,” said Leloir, direct disciple of Houssay, and Nobel Prize 1970, “ The board was made up of a majority of experts in the field of science and technical research. scientific issues, several of them (Houssay, Braun Menéndez, Deulofeu and I) had already acted in the management of the Argentine Association for the Progress of Sciences. This institution had had Houssay as president since its inception and for many years he was the only one to give scholarships for scientific research. When the election of President of the Council was discussed, Dr. Deulofeu proposed the name of Houssay and the majority accepted . Since then and for 12 years Houssay was Chairman of the Council. He held that position with great equanimity and success.  It was always trying to maintain a high level of competence among the Council's investigators. For this he had to fight with those who were only trying to get more money without taking care of the quality of the people. This is a very strong tendency and can even discredit scientific research in our country. Many of the enemies Houssay had were thought to be worthy of more help than they received from him . In addition, he had no qualms about giving his opinion on people and these comments often reached those concerned in an increased manner”

“Human work must be uninterrupted throughout life until death stops it. Every man must continually work for himself and his fellows, as long as his physical and mental health permits.  He will partly change his tasks when he is advised by age, as he should not block posts and will promote the continued arrival of younger men and new ideas of progress. I do not consider it an advisable human ideal to want to retire to be inactive, which harms the body and soul and society “said in his eighties who would be deep in the new generations of scientists, not only with his program of a solid theoretical training, research and research. o acute; n systematic, experimental method and dedicated dedication, but with a constant willingness to work.  Houssay came to have seventy different lines of research with her fellows in Argentina and abroad, with key contributions that made Houssay's school famous. Among so many, the Hypertension team and her discovery of renin, Dr. Rebeca Gerschman and her discovery of antioxidants, Dr. Galli Mainini and her pregnancy screening test, the first in the world . Houssay's global scientific dimension could be measured in the 127 medals and awards, membership of 200 scientific and academic institutions, 284 diplomas from the most prestigious universities and institutions, and 18 Doctor honoris causa appointments. A few months before his death, on September 21, 1971 in Buenos Aires, Houssay said, “ I do not want statues, plaques, awards, streets or institutes when I die. My hopes are different. I wish my country to contribute to the scientific and cultural advancement of today's scientific world. May they have artists, thinkers and scientists who will enrich our culture and whose work is beneficial to our country, our compatriots and the entire human species” 

“ Youth  must have elevated ideals and think about achieving great things, because if life always falls down, and only a part of what is craving, dreaming very high you will reach much more  The conquests of the present are youthful dreams realized and once considered impossible,”  said the unwavering dreamer Houssay, a model of life in Science, a model of patriot.


Sources: Houssay, B.  Writings and speeches . Buenos Aires. Eudeba. 1985; Buch, A.  Form and function of a modern subject. Bernardo Houssay and Argentine Physiology (1900-1943).  Quilmes: UnQui. 2008;  ;  ; 

Publication Date: 10/04/2021

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