PAGES: DOI: Editorial
In Tribute to the 125th Anniversary of the Birth of the Founder of the Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz

Oswaldo Gonçalves Cruz

Oswaldo Gonçalves Cruz, son of Dr Bento Gonçalves Cruz and Dona Amália Taborda de Bulhões Cruz, was born on 5 August 1872, in the small, peaceful village of São Luiz do Paraitinga, in the State of São Paulo. Bento Gonçalves Cruz, Oswaldo's father, had to overcome many obstacles on the road to becoming a qualified doctor. In 1877, when Oswaldo was only five years old, Dr Bento Gonçalves Cruz moved with his family to Rio de Janeiro, to provide his children with a better education.

In Rio de Janeiro, Oswaldo started his schooling at Laure College, and then went on to São Pedro de Alcântara College, before finally going to Pedro II (Official College) to do his university "preparatory exams". He entered the Faculty of Medicine in 1889, at the age of sixteen, and within the space of four years had already completed his medical studies, graduating on 24 December 1892, aged only 20, after successfully defending his thesis (compulsory in those days) on "The Transmission of Microbes in Water". He was not, however, a "brilliant" student in the conventional sense. Although extremely industrious and dedicated, he was handicapped by his shyness in oral exams, and went largely unnoticed by his professors.

The introduction to the thesis includes a scientific study of the various existing instruments for collecting water for bacteriological examination, and it goes on to describe a new instrument designed by Oswaldo himself for this purpose.

At the beginning of 1896 Oswaldo Cruz went to study in Paris. He stayed in Paris until the second term of 1889, studying at the Pasteur Institute, under the supervision of Professor Emille Roux. As the first Brazilian ever to study at the Pasteur Institute, he was exempted from the customary obligation to pay for experimental materials and animals. This privilege may have been granted in deference to Emperor Pedro II, a financial benefactor and emeritus, whom the Institute honoured with the unveiling of a sculptured bust. He return to Rio de Janeiro in 1889.

At the end of 1899 several suspected cases of bubonic plague came to light in the port of Santos, in the State of São Paulo, and Oswaldo Cruz was sent by the Directorate of Hygiene to investigate the situation. He confirmed the suspicions, thereby preventing the spread of the disease (which was new to Brazil) to Rio de Janeiro. In the wake of this outbreak of bubonic plague, Baron de Pedro Afonso, director of Rio´s Municipal Vaccine Institute, was given permission by the city mayor, to use the farm of Manguinhos as the site for a new "Federal Serotherapeutic Institute". When the Baron requested the Pasteur Institute to recommend a suitable technician, he was informed by Professor Roux that the man for the job - a recent trainee of the Pasteur Institute itself - was already in Brazil: Dr Oswaldo Gonçalves Cruz. The Baron immediately invited him to be Technical Director at the new Institute.

At the end of 1902 a crisis was precipitated by the fundamental incompatibility between the Baron and Oswaldo Cruz, leading both men to resign. A few days later Oswaldo returned as sole director, at the age of 30. The way was now open for institutional development.

Oswaldo Cruz was a born psychologist and had a magical gift for awakening in young people a desire to learn and a passion for research; he himself often worked over 14 hours a day. On Wednesday he held journal club meetings, at which each participant would present summaries of a few articles for subsequent discussion; the meetings, which began at eight in the evening, would often go on into the small hours of the morning.

In January 1903, the Minister of Justice and the Interior - a portfolio that included the Department of Health - put forward Oswaldo Cruz´s name for the position of Director of Public Health in his despatch to the President of the Republic. The President, startled by the nomination of someone he had never heard of, asked: "Who is this Oswaldo Cruz?" to which the minister replied, "Mr President, I don't know him either; but a friend of mine, whose judgement I trust, introduced the man to me as an outstanding hygiene specialist who would be capable of eradicating yellow fever, using an American method".

Within ten days Oswaldo Cruz had not only taken office (26 March), but had also presented his plan for public health reform to the government (1 April). In his brief inaugural address, Oswaldo Cruz ended by declaring that his motto was 'Work and Justice"; and when presenting his health plan, he pledged that he would control yellow fever within three years as long as he was given the necessary "power and resources".

The press and the public reacted to the nomination of Oswaldo Cruz with "surprise and disappointment". Hardly anybody had heard of him. The medical and academic establishment, as well as being surprised and disappointed, asked themselves how it was that Oswaldo Cruz had been chosen for such an important job.

This period saw an explosion of opposition to Oswaldo Cruz's program in the press, with caricatures, satirical ditties and verses, editorials, scientific critiques, judicial findings and pronouncements, slanders, threats and insults. Undaunted, Oswaldo Cruz not only expanded the program, but even collected the caricatures and criticisms published in the press, such was his conviction that his plan would yield results. The fever of opposition reached its zenith on 14 November 1904 when, in defiance of mandatory vaccination against smallpox, the cadets at the Military School staged an armed rebellion against the President.

The measures began to yield results. Deaths from yellow fever fell from 984 in 1902, to 584 in 1903, 48 in 1906, 4 in 1908 and 0 in 1909. Rio de Janeiro was now free of the disease.

After the initial succes of his eradication campaign, Oswaldo Cruz decided to expand the Manguinhos project, with a view to establishing an institute that would be a landmark in Brazilian public health. Construction work on the Manguinhos Castle began in 1904, on the basis of a majestic design that had been conceived by Oswaldo himself.

Without a doubt Oswaldo Cruz intended the monument to demonstrate to the world that Brazil had established a New Public Health Order.

In 1909, to mark the completion of the new, expanded Manguinhos project, Oswaldo Cruz inaugurated the Applied Manguinhos Course. It was the nation's first biomedical post-graduate program, and nurtured a new and unprecendented generation of Brazilian researchers and heath experts. In the same year he founded the Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, today one of the world's most prestigious biomedical journals, with a publication history of over 80 years.

In 1907, Brazil was placed first out of 123 competing nations in the International Hygiene Exhibition in Berlin. This success reflected the high level of scientific achievment at the Manguinhos Institute, which, in honour of its first director, came to be called the Oswaldo Cruz Institute.

Despite his many successes, Oswaldo Cruz was not one to "rest on his laurels". Already a sick man, he went to Amazonia in January 1910 to supervise an anti-malaria campaign. The campaign was essential for the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré railway. He also supervised a yellow fever control program in Belém do Pará, and the instalation of basic sanitation in Manaus, enduring months on end of travelling in old and poorly equipped boats between Rio de Janeiro and Belém despite his propensity to sea-sickness. Despite his protestations, Oswaldo Cruz was elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters on 11 May 1912.

Plagued by declining health, Oswaldo Cruz finally took the advice of family and friends, and stepped down from the directorship of the Institute. He was nominated by the President of the State of Rio de Janeiro to the recently created mayorship of Petrópolis, and took office on 17 August 1916. The next day, 18 August 1916, he presented an ambitious administrative program, covering everything from basic sanitation, education and public health, to parks, gardens and tourism, and even an electric tram link to Rio de Janeiro. The program, however, was never implemented owing to his state of health, which worsened steadily until he went into a coma on the morning of 11 February 1917. He died later that same day.

Abstracted from an article by Prof. JR Coura 1994. Great lives at Manguinhos. 
Mem Inst Oswaldo Cruz 89(1): I-VI.


Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz

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