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A split second in time

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Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Dr. Emil Q. Javier

A mere split second in time was how National Scientist (NS) Teodulo M. Topacio, Jr. modestly described his life, times and works in an autobiography with the same title recently published by the University of the Philippines (UP) Press.

The inspiration came from a quote by the late acclaimed Filipino journalist Teodoro C. Benigno: A split second in time, but what a split second. You can live a lifetime in a split second. Rapture comes only in a split second as do escaping moonbeams.

Indeed a man’s lifetime is but a blink of the eye in the history of a nation and the life of planet Earth itself. But those brief years could be very well-lived.

NS Topacio passed away quietly last 10 July 2019. He was 95.

NS Topacio was elected by his peers in the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) to the exalted rank of National Scientist for his outstanding life-long contributions in veterinary medicine. He was formally inducted into the Order of National Scientists by President Gloria Arroyo in appropriate ceremonies at Malacañang in June 2009. To date since 1978 when the Order was constituted, only 41 Filipinos had been conferred this signal honor.

He made his mark in basic studies on leptospirosis, a disease in humans transmitted by domestic animals (cattle, carabaos, pigs) as well as by wild animals, particularly rodents. The symptoms of leptospirosis range from mild headaches, muscle pain and fever to severe bleeding of the lungs and kidney failure. It can be treated with antibiotics and vaccination.

The disease is caused by cork-screw shaped bacteria which in infected animals lodge in the kidneys and which pathogens are continuously shed to the urine. Thus, the common mode of transmission to humans is contact or ingestion of urine from infected animals.

This occurs very commonly during floods when people with breaks in their skins wade in infected waters. Also in harm’s way are animal caretakers and workers in slaughter houses.

Hemolysis or breakdown of red blood cells was commonly associated with the disease but little was known of why or how. NS Topacio took on the problem for his doctoral dissertation at Purdue University in Indiana, USA. He demonstrated that the breakdown of the red blood cells was due to the adverse reaction of antigens with types of antibodies.

Filipino field veterinarians had been reporting cases of abortion and sterility in pigs attributed but without proof to the leptospirosis pathogen. NS Topacio on his return to the Philippines proceeded to isolate and culture different species of the pathogen thereby providing the first scientific confirmation of the presence of the leptospirosis pathogens in the Philippines.

Incidentally NS Topacio followed the footsteps of his equally illustrious father, Teodulo Topacio Senior, who played a key role in the eradication of rinderpest, a dreaded disease which decimated our cattle and carabaos in the 1920s. The Topacio Sr. with an American veterinarian improved on the available rinderpest vaccine. With the modified vaccine the country succeeded in eradicating rinderpest in the 1930s, the first in Asia to do so.

NS Topacio obtained his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree cum laude from the UP in 1951. He rose through the ranks, became full professor in 1967, and dean of the UP College of Veterinary Medicine (UPCVM) from 1964–69.

Apart from his academic and teaching responsibilities for which he had been amply recognized by the university, he was for decades the most visible person in the veterinary medical profession in the country. He served for ten years as Chairman of the Board of Veterinary Medicine under the Professional Regulation Commission (1994–2004). Together with three others, he was instrumental in the organization of the Philippine Society of Animal Science which amicably brought together the often aloof, and at times fractious, veterinary and animal husbandry professions. In addition, together with Dr. Mario Tongson, NS Topacio spearheaded the establishment of the Philippine Society of Veterinary Public Health.

There are two major streams in the veterinary medical profession — public health and animal protection/production. Most veterinarians specialize in one, but not in both. NS Topacio, exceptionally excelled in both. On the animal protection/production side, he was with the pioneers who founded UNIVET, the country’s largest veterinary products producer and marketer. As research and development manager, he actively contributed in the development and formulation of animal feeds, premixes and supplements and veterinary drugs not only for poultry and livestock but also for the past-time of many Filipino sports enthusiasts — the fighting cock.

In the regional sphere he persuaded and brought together under one roof the veterinary associations of the region into the Federation of Asian Veterinary Medical Associations. He was also part of a Filipino expatriate panel who helped modernize the poultry and livestock industry of Bangladesh with funding support from the Asian Development Bank.

In the later part of his career, as the senior statesman of the Philippine veterinary medicine profession, he lent his name and stature to the enactment of vital legislation on public health related to animals, to wit:

  • The crafting of the Philippine National Veterinary Drug Formulary under the Generics Act of 1988 (R.A. 6675),
  • The Veterinary Medicine Act of 2004 (R.A. 9268), and
  • The Anti-Rabies Act of 2007 (R.A.9482).

Not as widely recognized was his role as founding father of the Central Luzon State University (CLSU) College of Veterinary Science and Medicine. Realizing that the veterinary curriculum at UP which was modelled after North American and European institutions was not exactly aligned with developing country realities, NS Topacio introduced a ladderized curriculum.

NS Topacio was born on 30 November 1924 in the historic town of Imus, Cavite to a land-owning illustrado clan. His grandfather, Don Cayetano Topacio, also known as Capitan Tanong, was deputy minister of finance in the cabinet of President Emilio Aguinaldo. He was the second alcalde (mayor) of Imus, succeeding his brother, Don Licerio Cayetano who also served as a general in the Aguinaldo army.

We lost a great man of science, an outstanding Filipino who served his people exceedingly well with the demise of Teodulo M. Topacio Jr. — a scientist of the first order, a well-loved teacher and nurturer, institution builder and a real hero of our time.

Indeed, NS Teodulo Topacio lived the equivalent of a split second but what a life it had been!

*****
Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP).

For any feedback, email eqjavier@yahoo.com.

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