Lives of the fellows

Marcolino Gomes Candau

b.30 May 1911 d.25 January 1983
MD Rio de Janeiro MPH Johns Hopkins USA FRCP*(1961) Hon degrees†

Marcolino Gomes Candau was one of the greatest figures in medicine during the 20th century. He became a world figure almost irrespective of his nationality because his main professional work was outside his own country. He was a Brazilian, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1911, educated there and holding his first public appointments in that state’s Department of Health. He also became assistant professor of hygiene in Rio and he obtained the MPH of Johns Hopkins USA. He emerged from the State Health Department onto the wider scene as director of division in the Servicio Especial de Saúde Pública, which did so much good work in North Eastern Brazil from 1940, and moved on to WHO as head of division in the Regional Office for the Americas in 1950. A year later Candau became assistant director general of WHO before returning to the Regional Office, from which he was chosen as director general by the World Health Assembly in 1953. There were other more widely known candidates in that election and the choice of Candau was a surprise to many. That choice was quickly vindicated beyond any doubt, and Candau remained director general for 20 years. He chose to retire in 1973 when many hoped he would accept another term, but again his timing was impeccable, and he made an admirable succession possible without the confrontation between developing countries and main contributors which many had feared.

In 20 years Candau, as he was universally known, brought WHO from a struggling aid agency in the UN family to a position of great influence and real achievement. He managed to do this without alienating any of the large political entities involved or ever being suspected of bias. It was obvious that the developing countries had his sympathy - as they should — but he did not use the political strength they could have given him in a way that alienated the major contributors to the budget - the USA nearly one third and the USSR nearly one seventh. One could not fail to admire his dexterity and never doubted his honesty. In 20 years inevitably there were failures as well as successes. The malaria eradication programme attempted too much, but still achieved a great deal. The smallpox eradication programme was a magnificent success. The promotion of training erred for a long time on the side of medical schools, which developing countries wanted but could not always afford or service, while they did not produce staff with a more simple training that would have been of greater use. But the sovereign states would not be denied, and it was not at Candau’s inspiration that they sometimes over-reached. Candau always sought to develop a more simple infrastructure and mostly he succeeded. His successor’s policy was only possible because of the ground work Candau had done. Candau’s reaction to the Assembly’s rejection of his scheme for a world biomedical research centre was typical of him. He accepted it loyally in principle as in detail, and applied that same principle in helping to deflect the grandiose project for a world cancer research centre into the modest and rational Lyons-based WHO subsidiary, the International Agency for Cancer Research, which has done so much to develop the epidemiology of cancer.

WHO is probably the most respected of all the international agencies and the least disrupted by political differences. For that we largely have to thank Candau and the deputy he chose, also a Fellow, Pierre Dorolle (q.v.).

Candau was an urbane, unpretentious, friendly man. He could fight fiercely in defence of his staff, but utterly lacked consciousness of his own dignity. He was a charming host and a welcome and delightful guest. His intellectual quality was of the highest, but he was never the condescending expert some people of high attainments become. He was fluent and idiomatic in at least three languages with odd little quirks in pronunciation that endeared him the more to Assemblies. When he died suddenly at 71, nearly a decade after his retirement, he was mourned by the many at the ensuing Assembly who remembered him and his work, but also by uncountable numbers in the health field throughout the world.

Looking back through three quarters of the 20th century which encompassed his life there might be a very small number of doctors of comparable stature, but none who could equal his contribution to disease prevention, health promotion and, most of all, the care of people. He received innumerable honours, but he certainly valued most of all the informal and universal approval successive Assemblies gave him. He was twice married and the two sons of the first marriage, and his second wife, survived him.

Sir George Godber

*Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include in entirety.

[Times, 28 Jan 1983; Lancet, 1983, 1, 369, 487; WHO Jan 1961, Biographical Notes]

(Volume VII, page 85)

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