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Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia

Print version ISSN 0102-695X

Rev. bras. farmacogn. vol.21 no.3 Curitiba May/June 2011 

To the great scientist Otto Richard Gottlieb, a short farewell essay



Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani

Professora Titular do IQ-UNESP, Vice-Diretora da AUIn-UNESP



It is a task of great responsibility, admiration and fondness to write an editorial about Professor Otto Richard Gotllieb. How can we sum up, in a few lines, the academic and personal life of one of the greatest scientists in Latin America? We know that personal and professional life are always interlaced and merge in certain moments, and in places, in such a way that it is hard to consider impartially and accurately, in emotional times, such a special scientist. He had such an impact on the people he oriented, he has left an invaluable scientifi c legacy for the country which he chose as his own and for natural products research that is done today. Professor Otto played a decisive role in my choice to pursue an academic profession and in my fascination for natural products as a research area. When I fi nished my graduation in Pharmacy at UFPB, I decided to take my master's degree at IQ-USP, under the orientation of Professor Paulo de Carvalho, who had already accepted to be my supervisor. Fifteen days after the beginning of the course, Professor Paulo suffered from a massive heart attack and died. It was a really tough start for a 22 year old student, from the northeast region of Brazil, who had lost her supervisor before she had even begun her studies! It was under these circumstances that I met Professor Otto in Block 11 of IQ-USP, through Professor Mário Motidome, one of Professor Paulo's friends who was moved by my situation and who decided to help me. At that time, Professor Otto was already very well known internationally. Very shy, and slightly fearful of being in the company of such a renowned scientist, I went to his offi ce in Block 5 to talk about my expectations. In the brief interview we had, I left in awe of his interest in nature and organic chemistry, his assurance and especially his simplicity. I left the room having made a fi rm decision - I wanted to become a scientist. Professor Otto delighted his students with his classes on biosynthesis and later on with his ideas and concepts of chemotaxonomy, aimed at studies of phylogeny. Demanding, and highly disciplined, he would ask us about what we had learned during the many debates that would occur in his magnifi cent classes. He started his academic career at almost 40 years of age, and after leaving the Instituto de Química Agrícola in 1962, he went to the Weizmann Institute, in Israel, where he specialized in organic analysis methods and phytochemistry, as illustrated in several articles in his memory this week.

Upon  returning  from  his  post-doctoral,  he  embarked on an educational pilgrimage disseminating knowledge throughout Brazil. In 1964, he was invited to coordinate the Instituto Central de Química, at UnB, to where he moved, taking along with him many professionals who had worked with him in Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza and Recife. His dream was to form a team of scientists specialized in phytochemistry, as well as good post-grad lectures, with the goal of consolidating this field of interest in all of Brazil. His dream did not last long. In an act of solidarity along with other colleagues, he signed his resignation letter and with it, ended his dream to see in Brasília the ideal place to materialize the research on the species of our biodiversity. In 1967, the IQ-USP left Alameda Glete and moved to the University campus with the aim of broadening the existing lines of research. Chemistry of natural products was among the subjects chosen for expansion and Professor Otto was invited by Professor Paschoal Senise to give a lecture. The lecture "The Jacarandás: 400 years of woodwork, four years of chemistry" excited the teaching staff at IQUSP and after a lunch at which several issues were raised, Professor Senise invited the professor to build the lab in Block 11, initially with funding from FAPESP and later incorporated into USP. In 1976, he applied to become a full-professor. At this time, I was doing my master's and we celebrated over dinner at a pizza place in Vila Madalena. It was at IQ-USP, Block 11 that Professor Otto built his carrier. He used to say - In São Paulo, everything works and everything converges. Administration, secretaries, and public servants all work together to help lecturers to integrate teaching and to make research an organic aspect of their lives. Furthermore, at the Instituto de Quimica there endures the conviction that it is through basic scientific development itself, along with the adaptation of other technologies that will make the Brazil of the future. Having Professor Massayoshi as colaborator and the scholarship students Raimundo Braz Filho, Nídia Franca Roque, Zenaide Scattone, at the beginning of Mardem Alvarenga resulted in research of enormous international recognition. His ideas were so current that, in 1992, he published in Quimica Nova 15 (2), a beautiful review article on Biodiversity: a molecular theory, in which the importance of electron transfer reactions, oxygen and redox theory for the evolution of flowering plants were emphasized. Many studies in this area have been published in Science, one of them can be seen in the article written by Falkowski P. G. Science 311(5768),1724-5 (2006). Using several structural types of secondary metabolites that occur in plants found in tropical rainforests, dry forests, Cerrado and Tundra climates, a mathematical tool was created to correlate molecular data with the morphology of each taxon, according to different biomes, habitats and herbacea, in the attempt to correlate chemical data with plant evolution and phylogeny. I did my doctoral thesis under his mentorship, working with chemotaxonomy of indole alkaloids in Gentianales. Later, already working as an assistant lecturer at IQ-USP, I had the honor of speaking at a conference in Maise, Belgium, at an international congress on Rubiaceae. The research on chemistry and phylogeny in Rubiaceae was not only applauded, but was also substantial data to support the new taxonomic classification proposed by Robbrecht for Rubiaceae. At that time, Professor Otto was already showing signs of Parkinson's disease, but his brilliance and magnetism when defending his ideas in many ways masked the disease and sadly he did not live to see a drug for the treatment of this terrible condition emerge from our rich biodiversity. His passion for what he did and for the diversity in chemistry that he believed fundamental to the understanding of biodiversity's complex metabolic organization was so fascinating that he would often say – "Each plant has hundreds of substances and one of them could be more important than a galaxy". His work spans more than 700 articles, and several books and includes patents on Lignans and Neolignans of Lauraceae and Mysisticaceae. The significance of his contribution is seen in the number of researchers active today in the chemistry of natural products from Oiapoque to Chuí. They are his scientific children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. When he turned 70, we had a beautiful party at my house on Rua Livi, 46 to celebrate both his birthday and his retirement from IQ-USP, with cod fish under the supervision of Lucia Conserva, our doctoral student at the time and an excellent cook. That day I wrote my great mentor a poem and even sent it to Renata Borin to put it in the Otto R. Gottlieb Virtual Library, that unfortunately has been taken offline. My intention was to end with that poem. Sadly, dear teacher, betrayed by my own memory, I can no longer remember what I wrote, so, all that is left for me is to say good-bye.


In July 1988, the III International Symposium on Progress in Natural Product Chemistry, held in England at the University of Nottingham, was remarkable as it gathered the greatest names in the field: Alan R Battersby, Derek H R Barton (Nobel Prize laureate), Duilio Arigoni, Koji Nakanishi, Otto R Gottlieb, W David Ollis, and others. There also was Professor Otto, a renowned Brazilian researcher amidst many others in the field of natural product chemistry! Indeed, it was an esteemed sight! His compelling simplicity as a person, always concerned with teaching and learning, could be spotted in several meetings sponsored by the Brazilian Society of Pharmacognosy. Professor Otto's presence and participation, whatever in São Paulo in 1976, by the time BSP was created, or in Curitiba, in 1979 and 1984, at the rendezvous of the researches in the field, was always outstanding. Last June 20th, at the age of 90 years, Prof. Otto left us. However, in his teaching we find a perfect lesson to pharmacognosists: "… engage biology and chemistry is a defense method for future generations." The Brazilian Society of Pharmacognosy dedicates this issue of the Brazilian Journal of Pharmacognosy to the memory of this great Professor that, throughout his academic life, was always an example to all researchers, in Brazil and abroad, from all areas of the scientific knowledge.


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