Friday, March 7, 2008

Uncertain Priorities, Unclear on the Concept

Argentina is famous for musicians and singers (such as Carlos Gardel), political icons (Eva Perón), and soccer players (Diego Maradona) . The tango that Gardel popularized, Evita's oddly romanticized image, and Maradona's athletic greatness define Argentina to the world (though in the United States, where soccer is a niche sport, Maradona is at most a minor figure; basketballer Manuel Ginóbili is better known there) . Their images are everywhere, and their graves are pilgrimage sites (except of course for the erratic Maradona, whose continued presence on the planet is almost as inexplicable as that of Keith Richards).

Meanwhile, individuals such Bernardo Houssay, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1947, seem to have been virtually forgotten by Argentines and foreigners alike. At the medical school of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, a small museum bears Houssay's name, and last week I went to see if, as I had been assured a couple years earlier, it had undergone a reorganization. Only by banging on the door of a hard-to-find office was I able to speak with an apologetic curator who told me that, in the country's premier medical school, Houssay's legacy remains disorganized and essentially inaccessible to the public--even to the thousands of students who roam its halls.

Meanwhile, in a country which has made a spectacular economic recovery since 2002, the medical school's dingy hallways suggest that education is not one of the current administration's priorities. The building's facade may honor figures such as Hippocrates, Paracelsus, and Pasteur, but the students don't seem to aspire to Houssay's achievements, even if the shabby infrastructure may not be their fault.

According to one survey, three out of ten Argentine cardiologists smoke and the halls of the med school, whose institutional autonomy means that the city's anti-smoking ordinances do not apply here, are a free-fire zone for tobacco junkies. A significant percentage of the students, it seems, are ignoring overwhelming medical evidence, and the failure to honor figures such as Houssay is symptomatic of both cultural and political shortcomings.

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