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Brazil’s international scientific relations

August 2, 2011
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Oswaldo Cruz Foundation – by Magali Romero Sá

My work examines the policies for tightening scientific relations with Latin America adopted by Germany, France and the USA in the first half of the 20th century. Understanding these initiatives is vital to an assessment of international relations during that period in their broadest sense as well as the changes that took place in science and in medical practices as they internationalised in the interwar period. Within this setting, Brazil, and especially its capital city of Rio de Janeiro, attracted scientists and constituted a centre of intellectual exchange, becoming a Latin American hub in the texturing of relations with European countries and the USA.

The period in question was marked by international competition over niches of scientific penetration in Latin America, with foreign nations moving into the region’s industry and commerce and into its academic and institutional arenas (sectors that were gaining strength in various Latin American countries). The USA and Germany were France’s chief rivals here, and these disputes grew more heated as policies and initiatives involving scientific exchange programmes acquired a more international tone. Brazilian scientists were active participants in the process of knowledge circulation and scientific cooperation. Germans, French and Americans involved with teaching and training Latin American physicians and scientists developed their own strategies and produced specific networks and distinctive results.

The German pharmaceutical industry maintained close ties with post-World War I medical and scientific initiatives towards Latin America. It supported efforts to encourage exchanges with foreign countries with the aim of opening new markets and expanding the scope of its action. There were strong convergences of interests between medical and scientific ambitions and the pharmaceutical industry. Even though German scientists did not always deliberately act as agents promoting the German pharmaceutical industry, they did favour enormously the opening of new economic opportunities for companies that in turn contributed by strengthening the scientific activities weakened by the War and the disturbances that followed the Treaty of Versailles.

The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation's Moorish Pavillion. Casa de Oswaldo Cruz Historical Archives, Fiocruz

The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation's Moorish Pavillion. Casa de Oswaldo Cruz Historical Archives, Fiocruz

The Bayer pharmaceutical company played an important role in the process, especially through the close relations it developed between its laboratory scientists and researchers from various European and Latin American institutions, primarily in research, development and experimentation with drugs to treat tropical diseases. Walter Kikuth, a researcher from Hamburg’s Institute for Maritime and Tropical Diseases who conducted investigations on veterinary medicine at the Oswaldo Cruz Institute’s protozoology laboratory in Brazil in 1927–28, is of special interest to the present study. In 1929, he was hired by Bayer, where he continued the research he had begun in Brazil and developed important drugs for fighting tropical diseases, most notably Atebrine, a synthetic antimalarial drug widely used by Brazil’s Health Department.

Bayer relied on Renato Kehl, a Brazilian eugenicist and physician of German descent, who acted as the company’s direct intermediary in relations with the Brazilian government and scientific community. A respected figure in Brazilian scientific circles, Kehl was the son-in-law of Belisário Penna, an important figure in public health circles who later became Minister of Education and Public Health for a brief period. Kehl headed the country’s eugenics society and founded the journal Boletim Eugênico. He published articles and books of international renown and was the main proponent of eugenics in Brazil. As scientific director of Bayer in Brazil starting in 1923, he was the main promoter of the company’s products nationwide through its magazines O Farmacêutico Brasileiro and A Vida Rural, which he edited. Together with Revista Terapêutica – published in Portuguese in Leverkusen, Germany, for circulation in Lusophone countries – these magazines were also used to disseminate his eugenic beliefs. Bayer not only lent its full support to publicising eugenics through its three magazines, it also headquartered the Central Brazilian Commission on Eugenics, founded by Kehl in 1931.

In 1932, Kehl became partner of the newly founded Instituto Behring de Terapêutica Experimental, of which 80 per cent of the shares belonged

to the Behring-Werke, of Marburg, and the remaining 20 per cent to Kehl and the German manager of Bayer in Brazil, Hermann Kaelble. The German physician Walter Menk, a former employee of the Institute of Maritime and Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, was named Technical Director of the new company in Brazil.

Kehl’s actions contributed significantly to the pre-eminence of the Bayer industry in the Brazilian market, as well as Germany’s efforts to recover its prestige, influence and commercial hegemony after World War I. A study of Brazil in scientific network during the interwar period highlights the significance of a wider reflection about the complexity of geopolitical, economic and ideological interests in north–south relations.

Magali Romero Sá is a Researcher and Professor in the Postgraduate Programme in the History of Sciences and Health, Oswaldo Cruz Foundation Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

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