Helena Larroque was studying at the University of Buenos Aires when she suffered typhoid fever, a bacterial infection, and was never able to finish her medical degree. But his true vocation for the health of others went beyond having a degree. He came to work with the scientist Marie Curie in France and returned to Argentina to change everything. With her scientist husband, she promoted research on cancer and its causes. He spoke to the community and debunked myths about the disease.He created a nursing school, a cultural association to disseminate science, and the Liga Argentina de Lucha Contra el Cáncer – better known today as LALCEC -, which was one of the first non-governmental organizations in the American continent dedicated to educating in prevention. Larroque did all that 100 years ago.
He was born in 1883 in Concepción del Uruguay, Entre Ríos. At age 20, she moved to Buenos Aires to study medicine at a time when women encountered barriers to accessing universities. At the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Buenos Aires, Larroque fell in love with one of his classmates, Ángel H. Roffo, and there began a relationship that combined both mutual love and passion for science.
She was away from classrooms for several months due to typhoid fever. She lost her parents and later married Roffo, with whom she had a son.He developed his vocation of service in everything he undertook and left a legacy that is still widely unknown. Today there is talk of “translational research” in medicine as the way to bring discoveries in laboratories faster to the needs of patients, without neglecting disease prevention. However, in her own way, Helena Larroque was already launching actions in that direction with her own gaze more than a century ago: “In medicine, women have the superiority of the heart over men,” she wrote.
After World War I, Larroque traveled with her husband and scientist to France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. He met Marie Curie, and worked with her and her team. According to the book Mujeres benefactoras del mundo , written by the married couple María Luisa and Pedro Belmes in 1956, Larroque took classes at the Sorbonne University and published scientific articles. In a notebook, he wrote down:“I am nothing, I am worth nothing. I sincerely want to be my husband’s collaborator, with more good will than with qualities to deserve it. My mission: accompany my husband, help him, facilitate his task”.
Since the late 19th century, “there was a debate about how medical practice could be improved. On the trip that Helena Larroque and Ángel Roffo make to Europe, they get to know closely the functioning of institutions dedicated to scientific research and return to Argentina with ideas of change that include that medical care should be linked to experimental research in the same place”, said to Infobae José Buschini, sociologist, doctor in social sciences and researcher at the Institute for Research in Humanities and Social Sciences of the National University of La Plata and Conicet, who has studied the beginnings of oncology in Argentina.
“Although she was unable to graduate as a doctor, Larroque also did scientific research with her husband, who was a world-renowned public figure. When researching, she concentrated more on the physicochemical aspects related to cancer cells. It was part of the beginning of the development of oncology in Argentina, at a time when Bernardo Houssay, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1947, and Salvador Mazza, in parasitology, were beginning to stand out”, commented Dr. Buschini.
With her husband, they bet on the project of creating the institution that would dedicate itself so much to research in cancer as well as patient care. After several twists and turns, she managed to build the Institute of Experimental Medicine in Buenos Aires, which today is known by her husband’s name “Angel H. Roffo Oncology Institute”. Larroque moved to get funds for the work to be completed on Avenida San Martín.
As the institute’s pavilions were erected in the middle of wooded gardens, Larroque and her husband encountered resistance to the project: the neighborhood did not want a place with people with cancer to function there. “At that time, some people believed that cancer was a contagious disease. For this reason, the neighbors opposed and even threatened to kill Dr. Roffo. But that perception was changing thanks to the work of Larroque who organized small concerts around the Institute and invited the neighborhood to know the place with patients closely, ” he told Infobae the doctor Sergio Gianni, who is now acting director of the surgical area of the Institute.
“One of the innovations of Helena Larroque and her husband Ángel Roffo was that they were convinced that they had to investigate the causes of cancers and share the information with the community simultaneously. They wanted to tell people what they found in the lab. She started doing it and he kept giving talks for decades afterward,” Gianni said.
“Roffo, who was the first director of the Institute, became a world leader in oncology. He was one of the scientists who discovered that smoking tobacco causes cancer and was a candidate for the Nobel Prize.He was recognized by the Government of Germany as a scientist. In 1935, a book was published in his tribute with articles by 250 researchers from around the world, a fact that indicates the importance of his work, ”added Dr. Gianni.But Larroque also had his influence.
“It is clear that if Helena Larroque had not existed, Roffo would not have been the great scientist that he was, nor would the institute have been created. This institution was a pioneer in the American continent by dedicating itself exclusively to cancer research and patient care.Helena’s support was also key to obtaining funds for the creation of the institute and to carry out the research. She was a woman with a brilliant mind, and tremendously hardworking,” said Dr. Gianni.
Larroque created a nursing school that today bears his name associated with the oncology institute, and the Cultural Association of Villa del Parque, Devoto and Talar, where scientific outreach conferences and recreational activities for children were held. She was part of a commission of the National Council of Women and worked on a bill in favor of the civil emancipation of women, among other activities.
As he realized that only research and care for cancer patients was not enough, Larroque went further and founded LALCEC, inspired by an organization he had seen in France. “Our daily fight is against an invisible but predictable enemy and the best way to fight cancer is by working on prevention and early detection throughout Argentina,” he said. At that time, there was not even a Pap test for precancerous cells in women.
“Helena Larroque realized that cancer patients were late for diagnosis and began to promote education for prevention. He did it with conversation. Today it is almost unimaginable in a world where social networks and virtual encounters predominate”, affirmed in dialogue with Infobae María Cristina Espil, the current president of LALCEC. “When Larroque founded our organization, they went out to raise awareness about cancer with conversations in the community,” he explained.
On the day of the founding of LALCEC in 1921, a meeting was held in the heart of Buenos Aires.It was at the home of one of the members of the executive committee that Larroque went on to preside. There were Manuela Lezica from Lassen, María Helena Homberg from Ambrosetti, Mercedes Torres, Carolina L. de Argerich, and many other women who were determined to work for prevention and the best care of patients.
Nor did they forget terminal patients in the association’s first statute: “We will also have as our mission the assistance of the sick in hospitals and at home, to whom even in the worst of cases it will always be a consolation to be able to bring them moral support”.
Espil recalled: “The objective ranged from cancer prevention in the community to accompanying patients even though there was no longer effective treatment. Last year I assumed the directive committee of LALCEC, and I feel that Larroque’s ideas today have an impressive validityso that we help reduce the incidence and mortality from different cancers”. Currently, about 70% of cancer deaths are in low- and middle-income countries according to the World Health Organization.
In February 1924, Larroque was 41 years old and proposed to organize a childcare course aimed at the protection of childhood and the prevention of childhood diseases in the Cultural Association that he had created.But two days later he suffered a stroke and passed away just as his works were in full bloom.
In 1926 a monument was made and the then president of the National Department of Hygiene, Gregorio Aráoz Alfaro, said in his speech about Larroque: “The noblest aspects, the most sympathetic to me of this superior personality, were the generous altruism, the piety For the suffering, the ardent proselytism, high qualities that led her to be the spirited consoler of the sick, the animating encouragement of those who work in all degrees of the noble task of care, the promoter of the League against Cancer, the hard-working captain of a legion, small but enthusiastic and determined, of men and women whose banner is the fight against one of the saddest and bitter human pains,” An avant-garde woman.