Fond memories from Brazil – Maria Ines Azambuja

More than a source of inspiration, I found in Prof. Richard Levins a sounding board against which I could test and refine my ideas. I came to trust his opinion wholeheartedly and welcome his suggested readings and encouragement as well as the challenges he posed.

It is easy for most of us to accept that, culturally, the average 27 year old male living in 2015 is different from the average 27 year old male living in 1950, or 1980. We expect them to have different values, react differently to different situations and, generally, exhibit different behaviors.

However, in the ’90s, and still today, there is no equivalent common sense perception about this being also true biologically.  That was the idea which I strived to advance in 1994, as an alternative explanation to the rise and fall in CHD mortality.  I posed that a short-term variation (decades) in rates of population vulnerability (due to different contextual experiences of successive birth cohorts with influenza viruses) would explain the 20th Century CHD epidemic.

I first wrote to Prof. Richard Levins in 2002.  I was a 47 year old Brazilian MD with a PhD in epidemiology, married and mother to 3 teenagers, searching for minds with whom I could discuss this paradigm shift I was proposing. After reading some of Prof. Levins’ papers online, and finding many scientific and political ideas which I shared – I sent him an email introducing myself and presenting my theory on CHD.  From his work, I already expected Richard to be brilliant. What I didn’t expect was for him to be such a warm and generous soul.

We hit it off right away. We had similar perspectives on the co-evolution between the environment, the acquisition of vulnerability and health, even if, at the time, my focus was more biological and his more socio-political. This, I believe, allowed us to build an especial bond.

We met personally in 2004, and I remember him very kindly lending me space in his office to finalize slides that I was going to present at the First Meeting on Influenza and CHD, at the Texas Heart Institute.

I feel very lucky for the opportunity to know him and have worked with him.

All in all, Dick is a unique Professor. He presents a rare combination of biological expertise, analytical skills, political engagement and individual warmth that allowed him to have a powerful and lasting impact in those that met him personally and in the scientific community at large.

Maria Inês
Prof. Adjunta
Departamento de Medicina Social
Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul
Rua Ramiro Barcelos, 2600, 4/420
90035-003, Porto Alegre, RS