“Longevity is no longer taken away from me … whatever comes is a pity”, wrote Guillermo Soberón at 89 years of age. That pylon lasted five more years, enough time to verify, with immense concern and pain, the destruction of much of what he and previous generations had built. But resignation was not in his character. Tied to his wheelchair but clear and honest in his reading of reality, he prepared with five other former Health Secretaries the document “The management of the pandemic in Mexico: Preliminary analysis and urgent recommendations” that was presented to the government just last September . The health authorities did not deign to read it. They discarded the experience and knowledge that, in Soberón’s case, represented more than six decades dedicated to the health of Mexicans.
“Can you help me record episodes of my life?” He asked me a couple of years ago at our monthly meeting at El Colegio Nacional. He had published his memoirs, but he needed to leave a visual testimonial for his children and grandchildren. We did it with pleasure. His legacy belongs to all Mexicans. Can be viewed on YouTube: https://bit.ly/31gXADE. What I recall here comes from those conversations.
Guillermo Soberón Acevedo was born in Iguala in 1925. Descendant of a Cantabrian immigrant, he was from Guerrero on all four sides. His father, Dr. Galo Soberón y Parra, specialized in what were then called “tropical diseases”, such as malaria. His uncle – “soft and paternalistic” in his memories – was the agronomist Waldo Soberón, director of the National School of Agriculture of Chapingo.
He arrived in Mexico City at the age of five. He lived the hardships of a modest middle class: as a child he slept with his siblings in the living room of his house. He studied at the National Preparatory School. At that time he read Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. Everything was clear: his vocation was medicine.
In 1943 he enrolled in the National School of Medicine. Following in his father’s footsteps, Soberoncito, as one of his teachers called him, decided to write a thesis on malaria, while doing his social service in Apatzingán. The example of his father moved him to emulation… and to competition: “[no había] another remedy than to raise the obstacle to jump ”. He decided to depart from the paternal specialty.
In 1949 he entered the Nutrition Hospital. Later, already oriented to biochemistry, he pursued a doctorate in
University of Wisconsin. In 1957 he founded the Department of Biochemistry at the National Institute of Nutrition. A little later, as director of the Institute for Medical and Biological Studies at UNAM, he transformed the Institute for Biomedical Research and created the first department of molecular biology in the country.
His two periods in the rectory of the UNAM (1973-1981) passed in turbulent times. Soberón sought to separate the academic vocation from political militancy. In this effort he was not deterred – rather, confirmed – by the kidnapping of his daughter Socorro by the September 23 League. His basic response was the same as always: heal wounds by building institutions. He created five National Schools of Professional Studies and envisaged their final conversion into Faculties of Higher Studies. It limited access to oversaturated careers but increased and diversified the career offering.
At the end of his stage at UNAM, Soberón directed the Coordination of Health Services of the Presidency, where he planned the decentralization and alignment of health services that he would implement soon after, as Secretary of Health in the government of Miguel de la Madrid . As if that were not enough, Soberón promoted the National Health System and achieved constitutional recognition of the right to health protection.
It never stopped. He headed the Advisory Council of Sciences, was executive president of the Mexican Foundation for Health, promoted the creation of the National Institute of Genomic Medicine. Between 2004 and 2009, he chaired the Council of the National Bioethics Commission.
Says the Hippocratic Oath:
I will spend my life and exercise my profession with innocence and purity. […] If I faithfully observe this oath, may it be granted to me to happily enjoy my life and my profession, always honored among men; If I break it and am a perjurer, the opposite fate befall me.
Guillermo Soberón was granted that joy and that honor. On the perjurers who now break it, the opposite fate will fall – let there be no doubt.
- Historian and essayist. Director of the magazine Letras Libres. Among his books: For a democracy without adjectives (1986), Biography of power (1987), The imperial presidency (1997), Liberal crossing (2003) and De héroes y mitos (2010). His most recent work is Redentores (2011) published in the United States, Mexico and Brazil. He received the Order of Alfonso the Wise in Spain and the Comillas Award for biography for Siglo de Caudillos. Member of the National College.