Science isn’t what Venezuela is known for. We have our beauty queens, our beaches, our caudillos, and oh yes, we have our street crime too. Our scientific heroes are mostly forgotten. Like Dr. Félix Pifano — one of the unsung heroes of the stunningly successful public health initiative of the middle of the last century. I’m sure the burglars who’ve ransacked the institute he once led again and again this year have no idea whose legacy they were destroying. I wonder how they’d feel if they knew his story. 

For more than 60 years, the Universidad Central de Venezuela’s Institute for Tropical Medicine (or IMT, its acronym in Spanish) was the jewel in Venezuela’s bio-medical research crown. On September 10th, it was robbed for the 24th time so far this year.

That’s a kick in the nuts not just for Venezuelan medicine, but for our scientific history.

Researchers had taken to posting notes inside their own Lab advising burglars that they had inadvertently exposed themselves to dangerous fungi and needed to seek medical attention soon.

I first heard about burglars’ bizarre obsession with the IMT back in May. At that point they’d “only” been burglarized 16 times in six months. By then, researchers had taken to posting notes inside their own Lab advising burglars that they had inadvertently exposed themselves to dangerous fungi and needed to seek medical attention soon. They were hoping they’d see the notes the next time they broke in.

And break in again they did. Again and again. As of now, there’s not much left to steal.

I read the news with stupor. Do the thugs now picking at the bones of IMT begin to realize what they’ve done? Do the rest of us?

When IMT was founded, 69 years ago, it was a flagship of Venezuela’s drive to modernity: proof that the 20th century had finally kicked in.

Back then, the state was just starting to come to grips with the stew of diseases life in the tropics throws at you: malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, schistosomiasis, leishmaniasis, histoplasmosis, actinomycetoma, dengue, Chagas Disease…whatever weird infection you saw on Discovery Channel, we’ve got it. Tropical diseases were a scourge on Venezuela’s countryside back then. Miguel Otero Silva’s masterpiece, Casas Muertas, is one place to go for a glimpse of the way constant disease sunk generations of rural Venezuelans into an unending cycle of despair.

The coming of the oil era gave us a first hope that that bleak reality could be changed. Venezuela suddenly had money to spend. Serious public health policies, many of them unparalleled in Latin America, were put in place as early as the 1930s.

Their staggering success is one of the great untold stories of the 20th century. The fact you probably didn’t realize Venezuela’s interior had been a malarial hellhole for most of the last 500 years is all the proof you need of how profoundly they reconfigured our country.

Their staggering success is one of the great untold stories of the 20th century. The fact you probably didn’t realize Venezuela’s interior had been a malarial hellhole for most of the last 500 years is all the proof you need of how profoundly they reconfigured our country.

If I had to trace this “sanitary spring” to its origin, I’d put it in 1936. That year, health minister Enrique Tejera created the Malariology Institute, the Death Star of Venezuelan epidemiologic empire. He also named Arnoldo Gabaldón, a physician who had just finished his doctorate in the Rockefeller Institute, to head it. He’s a distant relative of mine, like a fifth cousin or something. Maybe it’s that connection that first made me curious about this whole thing. What made me passionate, though, was coming to understand the enormous impact his work had on the nation’s health.

But you’ve probably heard about Arnoldo’s work fighting malaria. You likely haven’t heard of the young colleague he quickly noticed. A young doctor who had been helping Tejera while he taught tropical parasitology at UCV’s med school. His name was Félix Pifano.

Are you looking for the pran of tropical medicine in Venezuela? Well, this short, slow paced doctor is your guy.

pifano_felix_2-3Dr. Pifano had been in love with rural medicine since he graduated from UCV in 1935. Actually, while everyone was wondering what the hell would happen to Venezuela after the long-standing dictator, Juan Vicente Gómez, died, good old Félix was treating children with tuberculosis in his natal Yaracuy State, while trying to raise the four children he had with his wife, Angelita Cordido. It was not glamorous work, but somehow exactly what Arnoldo wanted in an assistant.

In 1938 he took Dr. Pifano in an all-inclusive field trip to Panama and Costa Rica, there they witnessed massive campaigns led by several U.S. corporations to keep malaria and yellow fever at bay in their workers’ camps.

When they came home, Dr. Pifano became one of Gabaldon’s most loyal soldiers in his personal war against malaria, and a crucial piece for his eventual success.

The 30s were weird. The Third Reich tightened its grip on Germany and Europe was once again at the doors of war. Hundreds of intellectuals fled the country and two of them, Martin Mayer and Rudolff Jaffe; ended up taking refuge in Venezuela, eventually  becoming Dr. Pifano’s mentors. Their experience finally gained Dr. Pifano his position as Director of the Tropical Medicine school at UCV in 1942. Five years later, the IMT was founded by decree of President Romulo Gallegos.

And who else but Felix to lead it, right?

Well, no. As usual, politics got in the way and Dr. Pifano’s anti-perezjimenista ideology soon earned him a one way ticket to Mexico.

The institute building was finished in 1956, and like so many Pérez Jiménez-age buildings, it’s a modernist masterpiece. Fences and bricks created an impressive backlighting that, despite decades of underinvestment and neglect, retains the power to awe. From 1958, Pifano himself was able to enjoy it. The post-23 de enero return to democracy marked the dawn of a new country where he would play a key role. That same year, he was finally named director of the IMT by Rómulo Betancourt.

From that point on, IMT’s work really came into its own, merging academic research with social work decades before La Quinta República dramatically failed in its attempt at it. Dr. Pifano’s work systematized rural medicine into a lever for transforming people’s life while providing trustworthy data that led to a better understanding of tropical diseases, from leishmaniasis and Chagas, to scorpion and snake poisoning. The work earned Pifano national and international recognition; from an Orden Simón Bolívar, to an honorary seat in the French National Academy of Medicine. Also a few lines about himself in some random ULA’s Public Health class from which I first picked up his name.

Today even after el hampa’s dramatic attacks, IMT is still working to keep Dr. Pifano’s values alive: constantly receiving patients in its consulta externa and keeping more than fifteen active investigation lines, some of them running for more than 40 years.

But after each burglary, it gets harder. Sky-high inflation and an extremely difficult access to dollars make it impossible for the institution to cope. Not to mention the even harder-to-repair damage that losing years of research data stored in the stolen PCs means.

Shortly before his death in 2003, Dr. Pifano shared his bone-chilling vision: “veo un país sin futuro, que se lo lleva el diablo”  he said, as he recalled the desolation he witnessed with Arnoldo Gabaldón during one of their trips to the Soviet Union

Shortly before his death in 2003, Dr. Pifano shared his bone-chilling vision: “veo un país sin futuro, que se lo lleva el diablo”  he said, as he recalled the desolation he witnessed with Arnoldo Gabaldón during one of their trips to the Soviet Union.

Back then he told Gabaldón that human beings were meant to have hope and dreams, and he couldn’t see any of that in the streets of Moscow.

I’m sure he won’t be seeing much of that in here either.

14 COMMENTS

  1. It is really very disheartening. Perhaps I am incredibly naif but what if the scientists who still work there
    put, among the boards and notes something alone the lines of

    “Los ladrones destruyen la ciencia que puede dar salud y trabajo a sus hermanos”?

    I do not think 99% of those thugs will pay attention but perhaps one does or perhaps the girlfriend of one
    of those thugs will think about demanding the use of a condom before having sex with them (most likely to
    become single mother etc etc)

  2. And are we supossed to have some kind of mercy for these criminals who dare to destroy these priceless assets?

    When they are captured (If they turn themselves in, if they want to go with a fight, then bullet to the face and game over) and put into trial, they should be prosecuted not only for robbery, but also for the indirect killing of many people who are suffering the consequences of their viveza criolla lunacy.

  3. Off topic but interesting : Do look for an article from Business Week appearing in todays Bloomberg digital edition on the recent surge of a flood of calls from different Venezuelan Officials ( Army, Court , Pdvsa etc) offering US agencies secret incriminating information and documentation on a multitude of regime shenanigans in exchange for the chance of scaping Venezuela and moving to the US . so many that the people recieving these calls cant handle all of them ……!!

    There is an organization (including members of former israeli intelligence agencies) run by a Venezuelan specializing in this kind of thing with contacts in many US govt agencies who is interviewed and gives many details regarding whats currently ocurring in this regard.

    Also mentioned is that the Trump transition team are preparing a White Paper on Venezuela to guide the future actions of the US govt vs the current regime …….!!

    Thing are moving on many fronts that portend a difficult 2017 for the regime ……The Vaticans no nonsense position being just a small part of the picture ….

  4. This is very sad, not acceptable but understandable. The current cultural, economic, political, health and security situation has created a culture of survival. People are desperate and are responding accordingly. “Do what you need to do today to survive today. Tomorrow does not exist.” No one is thinking long term which is required to develop and maintain the information and processes to address these deadly diseases.

  5. “No me gusta profetizar. Pero el país no se merece la situación por la cual está atravesando. Transita un camino que no debe durar mucho. Interpreta lo que voy a decirle: Que no dejen perder a la Universidad, su destino no lo veo claro. No puedo evitar hablar del futuro. Visualizo al país sin futuro, como un país que se lo estuviera llevando el diablo. Hay que reaccionar. El país y la Universidad tienen suficientes reservas morales e intelectuales para sobreponerse a lo que pueda sobrevenir. Nunca me metí en política ya te dije lo que me pasó con Uslar Pietri.” RFM v.26 n.1 Caracas ene. 2003
    http://www.scielo.org.ve/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0798-04692003000100001

  6. Thank you, Juan Carlos, for a really well-written, important, and illuminating article. The 24 burglaries in the IMT is as mind-boggling as it is disgusting. Although being aware of occasional robberies of students, and even in the University Hospital, usually by hampa comun, this high number of robberies must indicate inside complicity, perhaps by students? And, even if the UCV police are deficient, can’t something be done by them to stop his problem?

  7. Near Medicina Tropical, at the Doctorado de Economía, were the burglars too. they don`t know the great damage they done, when they stolen the Secretary’s computer. All the most important academic and administrative information for the day and day. I’m very pessimist about the Venezuela’s future because of the growing ignorance and family destroyed by poverty, drugs and crime.

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