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When Maria Isabel Rodriguez took the decision to study medicine at the University of El Salvador, she was called by the dean to his office where he tried to discourage her from undertaking such a “man’s profession”. Seven years later she graduated with honours, and after a brilliant career as cardiovascular physiologist and basic biomedical researcher she was selected as dean of the same medical school that had tried to discourage her. As well as that, she was the first Latin-American woman to hold that position.
The military intervention at the University of El Salvador, a foreseer of the approaching cruel civil war, didn’t allow her to carry on with her plans as a dean. When she was forced to leave her country, she joined the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) where she built up international projects on medical education and in the development of human resources in health. Many of the institutions of high education—of countries such as Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, and Peru—with which she worked appointed her as honorary professor. It was during this time when she was a pioneer by introducing social sciences in the study of health problems, and helped to instigate the master in social medicine at the University of Xochimilco. She also organised and developed the training in international health at the PAHO in Washington. In 1999, and after defeating three other male candidates half her age, she became president of the University of El Salvador, being the first woman to hold that position in its 161 years of history.
In March 2002 at the 75th anniversary of the School of Public Health of Mexico—the oldest in America—she was nominated as one of the 10 scientific personalities to be honoured for her relevant contribution to public health in the whole world because of her work as educator and her contribution of introducing social sciences in medicine. Her pupils—dispersed in America and some in Europe, as Salvador Moncada—celebrated the recognition of their mentor. One of them, Dr Juan Vela Valdez, dean of the University of La Habana paraphrased these feelings as follows:
“I congratulate you with all my heart. All the educators and public health specialists from Cuba feel represented in your recognition. A hug and a kiss to the Maestra. Nothing more fair and comforting than seeing recognised somebody who has dedicated all her life to the wellbeing of the humanity in the fields of health and education”.
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