Emmanuel Levin: Scientist and Activist (1926-1999)
On September 12, 1999, the biochemist and activist Emanuel (Emilio) Levin died, one of the last of a generation of Argentine Jews who combined a commitment to world-class scientific investigation with dedicated and vocal opposition to state terror. As a member of the Argentine Communist Party and the Idisher Cultur Farband (ICUF), Levin organized and protested against right-wing violence, from Juan Perón's post-World War II regimes through the last Argentine dictatorship (1976-1983). Through it all, his work as an activist was carried out as part of a team of two; Rosita Levin, a medical doctor specializing in oncology, was his life partner.
Levin began his studies at the University of Córdoba, then moved on to graduate work at the University of Buenos Aires at a time when both institutions had leading international reputations in many disciplines. At both universities he joined student movements on the left in occupations and street protests against military rule. He wrote a doctoral thesis in biochemistry under the supervision of Dr. Bernardo Houssay, who won the Nobel Prize in 1947. Levin dedicated his scientific career to work on the nervous system and to cancer research. Almost immediately after graduation, he found himself in trouble with the authoritarian thugs who would, over the coming decades, undermine the independence and excellence of Argentine universities, qualities that Levin had helped establish. Having read Peronism early as a proto-fascist threat to Argentine democracy, Levin's participation in anti-government protests led to his arrest, beating, and imprisonment for two weeks in the early 1950s.
In 1959, Levin left Argentina to work and train in various laboratories. From his return in 1962 to 1976 he taught and carried out research as a member of the Argentine National Council for Investigation in Science and Technology, publishing 38 articles, two book chapters, and two books. With the coming of military dictatorship in 1976, Levin was ousted from the Council as a political opponent of the regime. Denied both a laboratory and an income, and despite the arrest, torture, and detention of his eldest son, Mariano Levin, Emilio continued to voice his outrage over the state terror of the dictatorship. In 1978 he wrote a letter to the journal Nature denouncing the military's attack on basic science.
That same year, Levine made his most important political contribution to the fight against fascism. Scientists from around the world were scheduled to gather in Buenos Aires for an international cancer symposium, planned long before the coming of the dictatorship in 1976. In protest against the "dirty war" in Argentina, many scientists and political leaders from around the world, including French socialist leader Jacques Lang, tried to scuttle the congress, proposing that the meeting be moved to France instead. Desperate to create an illusion of political normalcy and committed to an international propaganda campaign that presented Argentina as a country free of human rights violations, Argentina's military leaders were livid, and worked hard in diplomatic circles to destroy the "counter-congress" project in France. Sizing up the dangerous political climate in Argentina, and the prospects for an end to military rule, Levin argued against the counter-congress in France. At home and on trips to several countries, he convinced opponents of the Argentine generals that the way to fight them most effectively was by stealing victory out from under them. The congress, Levin argued, should take place in Argentina, but visiting scientists should join Argentines in public demonstrations against the repressors-an act still punishable by death or disappearance in 1978. Levin's voice held sway. The conference went ahead in Buenos Aires, and in a set of electrifying encounters with the police, Argentine and foreign scientists protested alongside the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo against the dictatorship-perhaps the earliest public protest by Argentines and non-Argentines against military rule.
In 1982, while thousands of Argentines and Britons cheered their respective forces in the bloody Malvinas-Falklands War, Levin initiated a dialogue with British academics, in opposition to the conflict. He and Steven Rose of the Open University (London) authored a declaration for peace and dialogue that was signed by dozens of Argentine and British scientists. With the coming of democracy in 1984, he advocated a key role for scientists in the promotion of social justice and helped found the Association of Scientific Researchers, a body for which he served as secretary. In 1986 Levin angrily denounced US-funded experiments conducted in Argentina on a new rabies vaccine. Americans and their Argentine colleagues were using dangerous live virus vaccines-banned for testing in the US and Western Europe. Levin successfully made the case that this was US imperialism at its worst, and helped bring the tests to a rapid halt.
After 1984, Levin kept busy at his science, publishing over thirty scientific articles. Before his death he completed Modulations of Steroid Receptors: Keys in the Treatment of Breast Cancer, a book that will be published posthumously. With Rosita Levin, he founded the Fundación Oncológica Encuentro, a non-profit foundation charged with disseminating information about cancer prevention and treatment. In the months before his death, Levin was working assiduously to gather information about the fight against big tobacco firms in the United States, and was leading a political attack on cigarette companies in Argentina. Ever the optimist, Emilio's warm smile and wry sense of humour will be missed by all who knew him.
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