50 years after the death of Bernardo Houssay: the first Argentine to receive a Nobel Prize in Medicine

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September 21 is a very special date for Argentine science, because exactly 50 years ago he died Bernardo Houssay, one of the most important people in the history of national science. A man who left indelible marks, who it marked a before and after in Argentine investigations.

Son of French parents, Alberto Houssay and Clara Laffont, Bernardo Alberto Houssay was born in Buenos Aires on April 10, 1887 and died on September 21, 1971. His intellectual life was great from all aspects: At the age of 9 he finished primary school, four years later he completed secondary school and at 17 he was already a pharmacist.

With the title under his arm he entered the School of Medicine from National University of Buenos Aires, from which he graduated with honors in 1911, with a thesis that gave him the Faculty of Medical Sciences award. The years, the practices and the investigations were motivating him more and more.

Doctorates Honoris Causa at Harvard and Oxford, wholesale prizes, promoter and first president of the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (Conicet) and nearly 1,000 published articles were titles more than enough to turn it into one of the most important Argentine scientists.

Nobel Prize in Medicine: the time of his life

On December 10, 1947, at the age of 60, Houssay received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discoveries about the role played by pituitary hormones in regulating the amount of sugar in the blood. Thanks to his work, physiology gained momentum in Argentina.

During his investigations, Houssay observed that his diabetic patients had a overactive pituitary gland. Experimenting on dogs and frogs, understood how the pituitary gland and pancreas interact to regulate glucose metabolism.

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All this research led him to postulate that balancing these two hormones would be possible control diabetes. This generated a break in international research on physiology.

A politically persecuted

In 1943, four years before receiving the Nobel Prize, the military government interrupted the work of the Institute of Physiology and dismissed Houssay of the chair he was driving. In 1945 he was reinstated for a year, but it would not be until 1955, after the Liberation Revolution, when he would finally regain his positions.

But the chase did not make Houssay lower his arms. On the contrary: in 1944 he privately founded the Institute of Experimental Biology and Medicine (Ibyme), from where he continued with his investigative task. There made important contributions to science, in the areas of endocrinology, nutrition, pharmacology, experimental pathology, adrenal glands, pancreas and hypertension.

It was also at this time that Houssay wrote his most relevant work: “Human Physiology”, published in 1945, which gained worldwide recognition. “The Perón government controlled the media and when Houssay won the Nobel, the news barely appeared in a couple of regions in a newspaper”, The former director of Ibyme, Dr. Damasia Becu, told the BBC in an interview.

El Conicet: Sowing knowledge

Despite the fact that the award-winning Houssay was showered with job offers from other parts of the world, he always stayed in Argentina. And not only that, He was one of the main promoters of local science. He didn’t just make personal contributions. He also trained hundreds of disciples who made Physiology one of the most developed fields of Argentine medicine.

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Meanwhile, he helped many other scientists develop their careers. One of them was Luis Leloir, the Argentine doctor and biochemist who would also obtain a Nobel (in his case, Chemistry) in 1970. Leloir worked with Houssay at the Institute of Physiology and it was he who directed his doctoral thesis on the adrenal glands and carbohydrate metabolism.

Even today Argentine science continues to reap what Houssay sowed: the main scientific “lung” of the country, the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (Conicet), was founded by the Nobel, who was also its first president. That, perhaps even more than his Nobel Prize, is the greatest legacy he left the country.

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