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Octávio de Freitas

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Octávio de Freitas

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 20/02/2017

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

José Octávio de Freitas (better known as Octávio de Freitas) was born in Teresina, Piauí, on 24 February 1871, but moved to Recife as a child. His parents were José Manoel de Freitas, a judge who held the position of President of the Province of Maranhão, and Thereza Carolina da Silva. Otávio was the eighth child in a family of eleven.

Always very studious, in addition to Latin he learned English and French well. At puberty, he had already had contact with form letters and newspaper inks, as well as started a job in graphic arts as a minor apprentice in the typography that edited the newspaper O País. From then on, Octávio never lost contact with letters. He studied in Teresina, São Luís, Recife, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. Most of the time, these pilgrimages happened because of the frequent transfers of his father to fulfil the positions delegated by the Imperial Court.

After completing the preparatory course at the age of 16, Octávio went to study at the Bahia Faculty of Medicine. There, he developed extra-class literary activities and became editor of the Gazeta Acadêmica da Bahia. When returning from vacation to the capital of Pernambuco, he founded the periodical Java, by the students of the Recife Faculty of Law.

It is worth mentioning that Octávio would spend only one year in Bahia. The reason? His failing in the paper of Physics. Saddened by this fact, he decided to transfer to the Medical School in Rio de Janeiro. In this sense, he had the support of his family and of Dr Fábio Baymam, a friend who welcomed him to that city.

After the move, however, Octávio had to return to Recife because his father was dying. When he passed away, the young scholar suffered greatly, having grown up admiring his father’s dignity and character as well as honesty in the conduct of public affairs. Dona Thereza Carolina fortunately managed to manage family life by herself: she educated all the children, as well as the five grandchildren who were under her care.

When Octávio graduated Medicine in January 1893, he decided to move to Recife. From there, his professional life did not stop shining. For example, when the Spanish flu hit Recife by sea in 1902, he managed to isolate the bacillus that caused this epidemic. In addition, he combated the marketing of expired products, the lack of inspection in the slaughterhouses, the precarious sewage system – in short, anything that meant delay or illness and could lead to death.

As his greatest concern was prevention, Dr Octavio always taught the population to deal with medical-sanitary, food and environmental problems, and even warned of the ecological imbalance that the indiscriminate mill discharge was causing to the rivers.

It should be noted that, on its own initiative, the tireless researcher made an important survey of population data from 1856 to 1904, concerning the births and deaths of the city. At the time, it is worth remembering, the average life expectancy in Recife was only 31 years.

Always acting against evil, whether it be an epidemic, class privileges or racial discrimination, Dr Octávio appointed a very popular black doctor – Dr Vicente Gomes – to work with the poorest sections of the population, leading them to mass vaccination. In the early 20th century, when an epidemic of bubonic plague struck Recife, the combative physician was able to diagnose the disease for the first time, following the most rigorous technique there was. When this epidemic hit Paraíba, the Governor from there sent for him to help the population fight it.

When it comes to his personal life, it is worth mentioning that he married Maria Cristina Antunes de Almeida Castro and had two children: Miguel and Octávio, born in 1902 and 1903 respectively. One twist of fate seriously shook the couple’s happiness, however: in 1909, both boys died on the same day, victims of yellow fever.

Despite this, Dr Octávio de Freitas continued to work and produce more than ever, even persuading the professors of the Faculty of Pharmacy (where he taught) to train doctors in Pernambuco. In 1914, together with the Congregation of this Faculty – besides him, the doctors Martins Costa, Ascanio Peixoto and Soares Avelar – unanimously decided to create a medical school.

This great dream finally came to fruition on 16 July 1920, when the Recife Faculty of Medicine was founded. At the time, Dr Octávio gave the inaugural lecture for the 1st Class of the Medical Course, analysing the responsibilities and the duties of doctors with regards to society. From 1920 to 1927, the Faculty of Medicine operated in the street formerly called Rua do Sebo, in the neighbourhood of Boa Vista, today known as Rua Barão de São Borja.

Also in 1920, there would be immense joy: the birth of his third son, José Octávio de Freitas Júnior, who like him followed a career as a doctor.

Dr Octávio de Freitas was a sanitarist, public health administrator, writer, journalist and researcher. In the classes he gave, he always focused on issues related to social hygiene, prophylaxis and public assistance. A pioneer in Pernambuco in the fight against tuberculosis, he also led mass vaccination campaigns, fought for the hygiene of cities, and studied various diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, pertussis, scarlet fever, malaria, bacillary or amoebic dysentery, Weil’s disease, lymphogranuloma venereum, leishmaniosis, beriberi, measles, bubonic plague, typhoid, leprosy and syphilis.

Passionate about the sense of justice, he was also a great enthusiast of abolitionism, having participated in rallies led by Joaquim Nabuco, José do Patrocínio and José Mariano. In turn, he participated in marches and developed campaigns for the abolition of slavery and the implementation of a republican regime. At that time, he founded the Faculty of Medicine Republican Centre, to serve as a backdrop for political debates. On some aspects of his personal and professional life, a group of doctors took the initiative to write and publish the book Octávio de Freitas, um homem à frente do seu tempo [Octávio de Freitas, a man ahead of his time] in 1933.

It is important to note that Dr Octávio de Freitas wrote and published several relevant works, such as Lições de microbiologia [Microbiology Lessons]; Horas de trabalho [Work Hours]; Meus doentes meus clientes [My Patients My Clients]; Problemas médicos [Medical Problems]; Doenças africanas no Brasil [African Diseases in Brazil]; Medicina e costumes do Recife antigo [Medicine and Customs of Old Recife]; De calouro a médico [From Freshman to Doctor]; Os animais na história e na higiene [Animals in History and Hygiene]; Clima e mortalidade [Climate and Mortality]; Histórico da luta anti-tuberculose em Pernambuco [History of the Fight against Tuberculosis in Pernambuco]; Lepra, leprosos e leprosários [Leprosy, Lepers and Leper Colonies]; Poeiras [Dust]; Dietas e remédios [Diets and remedies]; Servindo ao Rotary [Serving Rotary]; Médicos, outras figuras e fatos do meu tempo [Doctors, Other Figures and Facts of My Time]; Minhas memórias de médico [My Memoirs as a Doctor]; História da Faculdade de Medicina do Recife [History of the Recife Faculty of Medicine]; Anuário estatístico demógrafo-sanitário de tuberculose no Derby [Demographic and Health Statistic Yearbook for Tuberculosis in Derby]; and O dispensário de tuberculose no Derby [The Derby Tuberculosis Clinic].

Dr José Octávio de Freitas died in Recife, his adopted land, on 26 January 1949 at the age of 78.

In his honour, today there are a street with his name, next to Osvaldo Cruz Hospital; a bust in the gardens that surround the Health Sciences Centre in the Campus of the Federal University of Pernambuco; and a large hospital (the former Sancho Sanatorium), intended for the treatment of tuberculosis, now called Octávio de Freitas General Hospital, among others. In turn, the name of Liga Pernambucana Contra a Tuberculose [Pernambuco League Against Tuberculosis] has also changed to Centro Médico Octávio de Freitas [Octávio de Freitas Medical Centre]. The illustrious physician was also chosen as patron of the auditorium of the Medical Society of Pernambuco.

As can be seen, successive generations have always arranged a way of enhancing the humanism and pioneerism of that brilliant physician from Northeast Brazil. Undoubtedly, Dr José Octavio de Freitas was both a memorable Pernambuco sanitary doctor and a great revolutionary for the common good.

Recife, 28 July 2005.
(Updated on 19 March 2008).
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.

sources consulted

MIRANDA, Waldemir. Vida médica em Pernambuco; scientia et caritas. Recife: Sociedade de Medicina de Pernambuco, 1974.

MEDICINA. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em :6 jul. 2005.

TÁVORA, José Geraldo. A história de Octávio de Freitas. Disponível em: <>.  Acesso em: 11 jul. 2005

TÁVORA, José Geraldo (Org.). Octávio de Freitas: um homem à frente do seu tempo. Recife: Editora Octávio de Freitas, 1993.

how to quote this text

Fonte: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Octávio de Freitas. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: dia  mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.