Life in Quito
We were quite poor, but this is a relative statement for residents of a city where the majority of the population lived at or below subsistence level. We were surrounded by abject poverty, and few of the inhabitants of Quito could be called middle class. However, compared with many of the other Jewish refugees, we were not doing too well. My father had come to Ecuador with some US $5000, which was a considerable sum in those days. As a result, he felt like he was a capitalist and didn’t have to stoop to do what many others did at the beginning. Quite a few of the refugees, especially those with an eastern European background, became peddlers and went from door to door, with a pack on their back, trying to sell bits of merchandise. Everything was sold on time and since the chances of getting paid were low, the prices tended to be very high. Eventually many of these refugees opened stores or started small manufacturing enterprises, some becoming quite successful.
My father plugged along for a few years but was going steadily downhill, eventually reaching near penury. A couple of years after I had left Quito in 1950, my father had a brilliant idea of how to make money under the local conditions. He approached the directors of the few trade unions that existed in the city and made them the following proposition: If he sold his menchardise to their members at a good price, they would ensure that he got his payments by withholding them from the workers’ salaries. Of course, all those involved would get a nice cut and everybody would come out ahead, including the customers. This worked quite well because there were no laws that prohibited withholding money from people’s pay. My father had a store in the center of the city where the merchandise could be inspected. He made a fair amount of money and would have become wealthy but my mother took ill, which required all his attention and was the reason why they eventually left for Israel, but not before getting Ecuadorian citizenship.
My father’s store was called Almacenes Chester, or Chester’s Store. The reason for the name was that there was no way that Ecuadorians could pronounce our surname. The closest they could come was Chester, which they knew as an abbreviation for Chesterfield cigarettes. Before the success with the trade unions, my father lived by making deals. He would buy this, sell that. This included cuts of cloth for suits, shirts, radios, cans of tomato paste, whatever. In German (or Yiddish), he was what was known as a “Sehhaendler,” which can be directly translated into English. It means that he was a “See-dealer,” someone who dealt in “whatever he saw.” Some of the time he lent money, sometimes he borrowed it. He tried to be scrupulously honest, but this didn’t prevent him from trading in smuggled goods, especially diamonds. I guess that didn’t count.
Having so little money meant that I had a very small allowance, only enough to go to a movie every couple of weeks or treat myself to a candy once in a while. A bus ride in Quito cost the equivalent of one US penny, and I remember walking quite long distances to save the fare. Still, I always had sufficient clothing and enough food to eat. When I finished high school, I had to work for a year because my father told me that he didn’t have enough money to pay for my going to the university right away.
I always hungered for meat. My parents were vegetarians, more by convenience than by belief in not eating animals. There was no kosher butcher for large animals in Quito and they tried to keep kosher. Chickens were OK because their slaughter required a lesser religious license. However, Ecuadorian chickens in those days were mainly strings and bones. They didn’t even make a decent soup, which we blamed on the fact that water came to a boil at a considerably lower temperature at Quito’s 9000-foot elevation. On the other hand, vegetables and fruits were superb and included what to us were exotic varieties such as papayas, mangoes, and cherimoyas. I ate pasta every day for lunch (our main meal), which was fine with me (and still is). Breakfasts and dinners consisted of white bread with cheese slices, both of which were fresh and good. Once in a while I filled my craving for something more substantive by buying some kind of meat sandwich at a local store. The parents of my friend Frisco owned a restaurant and let me have a plate of mashed potatoes with gravy for one sucre, about five cents at the time. The restaurant was called Gambrinus, after the legendary patron of beer.
The main form of entertainment for me was getting together with my friends, in groups or singly. Often, we went on Sunday walks or rode a bus to nearby villages where there were public swimming pools. We had parties quite often, but these were tame affairs. I remember getting drunk for the first time at one of these occasions, drinking a lot of vermouth, of all things. I was sick for three days but my mother quite understood and took good care of me. The most satisfying social activities for me were the chats with my friends. We usually did this while walking up and down some dark street at night. It can get quite cold in the evening in Quito, hence the need to keep moving. We would occasionally stop in a café and have a cup of coffee or a drink. The topics were wide-ranging, including politics and the meaning of life. Although we were generally aware of what was going on in Europe during the war, this was not a common topic of conversation. It probably felt too remote. Occasionally, we would take longer trips, lasting a couple of days, since there are many places to visit not far from Quito, both along the mountains and going down to the coast. For vacation, we favored Baños, a resort town in a narrow valley on the way to the Amazon basin, where there were a couple of inns run by refugees.
I began to study English around the age of 14 or 15. At first, I didn’t make much progress, but as with other events in my life, there is a story associated with it. One day, my father came home, handed me a slim book in English and said: “Here, translate it!” The fact that I knew practically no English didn’t faze him. He just passed his audacity on to his only son. Besides, he told me that I was supposed to be a bright kid. The book belonged to a professor of pharmacy who needed it for his teaching. The subject was the poison curare, the author an American scientist. Natives in the Amazon jungle used curare as an arrow poison, so it was of particular interest to an Ecuadorian scientist. Wondering what I was getting into, I started to tackle it, needing a dictionary for almost every word. Somehow, I navigated through the myriad of irregular verbs and the syntax, and typed the translation on an ancient Remington. I got a sucre a page, about five U.S. cents. When I got to the bibliography at the end of the book, I got an unpleasant awakening. One of the references was to an Italian article entitled Sull’arte del curare. The word “curare” was there all right, but in Italian it means “to cure, to heal.” The author had obviously never bothered to look up this article. Ay ay ay, another illusion shattered at an early age.
In time, my English became better and better. Towards my late teens, it was good enough to read novels. I had always been an avid book reader and went through novels rapidly, at least one a week. The source of most of the novels, both in Spanish and English, was a fairly good lending library in the “Centro Ecuatoriano-Norteamericano” run by the American embassy. In Spanish first, and later in English, I read many U.S. novelists: Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, and others. I got my fill of the social novel, which helped reinforce my sometimes leftist leaning. Meanwhile, my spoken English gradually improved thanks to my two friends from the States, Mary Dean and John Howieson, who spent a year in Quito. By the time I came to the States, in January of 1950, I could converse pretty well, read with ease, and write fluently, although with mistakes. John saved a letter I had written to him shortly before that in which I complained of having “aches in the bellies.”
This piece is not about existence but about the Laboratorios Industriales Farmaceuticos Ecuatorianos, and you should be able figure out what that means. La LIFE, as the enterprise was known locally, had an interesting history.
The sole major pharmaceutical company for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, La LIFE was an unintended consequence of World War II. Sometime in the late thirties, the Ecuadorian government had turned to Germany to provide it with the equipment and material to manufacture vaccines and sera locally. Or perhaps this was initiated by the Germans, I’m not sure. The Germans obliged and, in their thorough fashion, packed up a huge collection of test tubes, autoclaves, Erlenmeyer and Fernbach bottles, microscopes, inoculating loops, pipettes, sterilizing ovens, bottle upon bottle of rare and common chemicals, and everything else they could think of. The large containers containing this potpourri arrived in due time, and so did the war. Hence the staff needed to put the material to work stayed behind. In their wisdom, the Ecuadorians did not open the containers but left them undisturbed until they could find a team that could run an industrial pharmaceutical laboratory.
Remarkably, such a team was assembled in Italy, and consisted of Italian Jews eager to emigrate. Not all these people were trained in the pharmaceutical business, far from it, but they all had in common the self-assurance of the well-bred Italian Jews. So, to Quito they came and apportioned the various tasks among themselves. A businessman became the general manager, a chemist the leader of the pill-making section, and so on. To head the Sección Biológica, they chose the closest thing they had to a microbiologist: a pediatrician, Aldo Muggia, who was to play a very big role in my life (and, inevitably, in my LIFE).
A digression on the Muggias is called for, because I hold the distinction of having encountered five generations of the family. This is by far the longest thread of continuity in my life, and I treasure it as well for the affection I hold for the Muggias I have known. To start at the top, Aldo's father (Alberto; I ask you to keep the name in mind, as Aldos and Albertos keep alternating) was my pediatrician in Turin, when I was about eight years old. He is the only one of “my” Muggias I can't remember. At any rate, his son, Aldo, was my boss at La LIFE in Quito and is the hero of this piece. Aldo's son, the second Alberto in the story, settled in the Boston area and we have continued the friendship that had started in our youth. His son, the great-grandson of the original Alberto and Aldo by name (what else?), also became a physician in the family tradition and, of all things, studied at my university and was my student. Young Aldo's wife gave birth to a boy, my fifth generation of Muggias, but he wasn’t named Alberto, counter to tradition. Let me recapitulate: the five generations include, in order, my pediatrician, my boss, my friend, my student, his son. With a bit of longevity on my part plus fecundity on the youngest Muggia's part, I may make it to see a member of the sixth generation!
Back to La LIFE and the first Aldo. My father knew of my early interest in Microbiology and took it seriously. He knew the Italian Jewish community in Quito and, due to his experience in Italy, served as the go-between connecting this small and exclusive group with the larger group of Central and Eastern European émigrés. The two groups rarely met, practically never socially. Only the High Holidays brought them briefly together. They shared no common language at first, except for their rudimentary Spanish, and few common traditions. In the highly fractured Jewish Community of Quito in the early 40's, these were unbridgeable gaps. My father was in a position to make a request to Dr. Muggia for me to work at La LIFE during the summers. I was dutifully interviewed (I remember being asked what temperature I would use for a bacterial incubator) and accepted as a young trainee.
My earliest yearnings for studying bacteria began at the age of 14, when I read Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters. This book is an exaltation of the early pioneers of microbiology, pretty much written for adolescents. Not only had I read the book, I had re-read it and memorized parts of it. Each one of the people described seemed as fearless and reckless as any great adventurer who faced insurmountable odds. I remember my mental anguish about the injustices committed to such noble figures as Spallanzani, Pasteur, Bruce, and the rest. I became committed to go down the same path and brave the slings and arrows that undoubtedly would befall me as I was blazing the trail towards the discovery and cure of infectious diseases. Quite a few other microbiologists relate the same experience, how this book also influenced them in their career choice.
Many years later, after Aldo Muggia died, I dedicated a scientific paper I was particularly proud of to his memory. Here’s why. In La LIFE, I was not only taken in as a pair of hands, I was treated like a true apprentice. Dr. Muggia may or may not have spent a great deal of time thinking about me, but his pedagogical instincts were all in place. Not one to mollycoddle anyone, in my first summer there at the age of 16 he put me to work doing menial tasks. I worked first in the media kitchen where we had to make from scratch all the nutrients for bacteriological cultures. (Nowadays they are pre-packaged as dry ingredients. Add water, sterilize them, and they are ready for use.) A break from this routine came when a cow from the stable that La LIFE maintained for various purposes died. In the frugal ways for which Italian Jews were famous, nothing went to waste. I was given the heart, and told to turn it into powder for the preparation of the reagent used in the classical Wassermann test for syphilis. Not a small matter, it turned out. First, I had to grind up the heart and dry it into highly pungent, dark brown, hard, shapeless lumps. Then, I was given a porcelain mortar and pestle to convert the stuff into a fine powder. Each little lump became a challenge, as they each had to be pounded, crushed, triturated, and comminuted, one by one. A fragment larger than a pinhead was unacceptable. I must have spent a whole week doing this, counting each hour and each minute. I kept cussing to myself, muttering perhaps that life and beef hearts were both hard.
Later on, I graduated to more sophisticated tasks, each of which was a particular challenge. I remember that once Dr. Muggia unceremoniously dumped on my bench yet another piece of German equipment that hadn't been previously unboxed. This was an apparatus called a freezing microtome, the gadget used for making the thin frozen sections that pathologists use adjacent to an operating room for rapid diagnosis of biopsy specimens under the microscope. In our case, it was the handiest way for getting started making tissue sections (paraffin sections came eventually). Dr. Muggia said something to the effect of "Figure out how to make sections," and left. I don't know of anyone else who has tried this without being shown, but I can say that the challenge is not inconsiderable. It took me several weeks before learning how to make passable sections, but I think that Dr. Muggia was as interested in my learning by myself as in getting the job done. When it came to squeamishness, he also had an instant cure. He sent me to the hospital for contagious diseases and told me to obtain fecal specimens from the patients directly and to then culture typhoid bacilli from them. I used throat swabs for the anatomically opposite end. The ward was the closest to a pest house I ever want to see. A solution of phenol was available to the staff and I burned my hands by its repeated and generous employment.
Dr. Muggia may have performed as an industrial microbiologist, but he was a complete doctor at heart. Thanks to him, La LIFE, for all its modest resources, developed a pronounced social conscience. They started the first day care center in the country for their employees, making sure that mothers working there had free periods for feeding their babies. For his many contributions to pediatrics, the Ecuadorians repeatedly honored Dr. Muggia and acknowledged his nurturing drive. Not all his efforts worked equally well. He had the idea once that since workers at La LIFE were somewhat malnourished, each one of them should drink a glass of milk twice a day. In order to make sure that the milk was actually consumed and not spirited away, each worker had to drink it right then and there in front of the person delivering it. What Dr. Muggia did not reckon with was the widespread lactose intolerance of the Ecuadorians. The first time the policy was implemented was the day of the most massive run on toilets in La LIFE's history.
Then came the horse penis. As I said, nothing was allowed to go to waste, so when one of the horses that had been used for producing a serum died, the principle applied. That day, Dr. Muggia placed on my bench a round, visceral-looking object perhaps three feet long and some three or four inches across and, being a man of few words, he said that this was the horse's penis and would I get busy and use it for making a culture medium for gonococci. Muggia's knowledge came in part from a textbook he had brought along from Italy, which had been current when he had been a medical student, probably in the early '20s. The author was an eminent Italian microbiologist with a Renaissance Condottiere-sounding name, Azzo Azzi. The book had a long appendix that listed all kinds of recipes for culture media and stains, including one by, I believe I have the names right, the Japanese Hiromichi and Tsuda. The recipe was something like “make an infusion of horse penis and add agar.” This meant that I had to return to my grinding ways and triturate this organ. Easier said than done. Nature has endowed male horses with quite an apparatus, full of sinews and fibers, tough as can be even in its flaccid, postmortem condition. The only way to attack the monster was to stab it over and over with a great big knife and then cut across the grain, as it were. Happily, gonococci grew well on the medium I made from it.
LIFE today, a thriving enterprise. Source.
Many more were the lessons that I learned at La LIFE. Muggia helped many others in the same fashion, most of whom benefited greatly from the experience. Some of them became my lifelong friends. First was Galo, whom I mentioned above and who remained my longstanding friend until his death in 2011. I also count as a La LIFE friend Plutarco Naranjo, a true polymath, who not only mastered the intricacies of pharmacology, but went on to become Ecuador’s Minister of Health and ambassador to the Soviet Union. He has written well over 20 books on subjects as varied as nutrition, ethnobotany, Israel (in a positive light), and the history of medicine (including an extremely well documented defense of the thesis that syphilis originated in the Old World). This breadth of interests reflects a more generally evident cultural attitude that I can only applaud. Professional survival in Quito at that time demanded the acquisition of a variety of skills. Being a specialist and limiting oneself to one activity was a poor way to make a living, thus people had to become at least somewhat proficient in many fields. I had to quickly put this nourishing stance behind me when I came to the United States. On subsequent visits to Quito, I paid for it. Everyone assumed that I knew something about everything!