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Amália Taborda Bulhões Cruz, Cruz’s mother. Family archives

Born on August 5, 1872, Oswaldo Gonçalves Cruz was the oldest child of Bento Gonçalves Cruz and Amália Taborda Bulhões. He was also their only son. Five girls came after him: Eugênia (who died as a child), Amália, Alice, Noemi, and Hortênsia.

Bento was the son of a prosperous merchant with an establishment on Rua do Senado, in Rio de Janeiro. Orphaned as a child, he and his sister were raised by an uncle, José Pinto Magalhães. It wasn’t long before Magalhães, who had no talent for business, lost the entire inheritance of 80 contos, which had been left by Bento’s father.

Despite this relative poverty, Bento did not need to quit school as a child. When he did drop out, it was because he wanted to—while a student at the School of Medicine, he suspended his studies to enlist in the Brazilian Army and fight in the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870). The decision shocked his family, but the young student’s patriotism spoke louder.

Bento graduated in late 1870 and moved to São Luís do Paraitinga, a thriving agricultural center in São Paulo’s Paraíba Valley, where he began his career. He set up private practice, built up a clientele, and made a name for himself. In the nineteenth century, it was nothing out of the ordinary for a doctor fresh out of medical school—most of whom were young—to pack up his diploma and head off to some city in the interior in search of work and a good income.

In 1871, Bento returned briefly to Rio de Janeiro to marry his cousin Amália Taborda Bulhões, a refined and well-educated young woman who was versed in French romanticism and read Dante in the original. Amália’s parents, Pedro Taborda de Bulhões and Zeferina Josefa Pinto Magalhães, were teachers in Petropolis, a town in the mountains outside of Rio. Amália had two sisters: Luíza, the oldest, and Hortênsia. It is reported that Pedro was very attached to his daughters and did not want them to marry. Luíza and Hortênsia went along with their father’s wishes. Amália had a more independent spirit and decided to do as she liked.

Oswaldo Cruz lived in São Luís do Paraitinga at Chácara do Dizimeiro, the family residence, until he was 5. In 1877, his father took his sizeable nest egg and went back to Rio de Janeiro. He moved the family to a house in the neighborhood of Gávea, a peaceful area on what was then the edge of town, where street car lines were just beginning to arrive, connecting the region to downtown. Bento set up an office in his own home and recruited part of his clientele from among the workers at the industries then opening their doors in the neighborhood. One of these was the Fábrica de Tecidos Corcovado textile plant, which hired him as a contract physician some time later.

When young Oswaldo got to Rio, he was already literate even though he hadn’t yet attended school, because his mother had taught him to read and write. After completing elementary school at Colégio Laure, he studied at Colégio São Pedro de Alcântara and next at the longstanding Colégio Pedro II, then Brazil’s leading educational institution, where he took his college entrance exams.