In primo piano
An Italian epidemiologist of international renown
Employment and vocational training
Can you say you have had a Mentor in your education?
Each of us is the encounters we make in life. Adriano Buzzati-Traverso and Luca Cavalli-Sforza in Pavia imprinted me with the interest in quantitative methods in medicine which I developed into research in Pisa working with Luigi Donato, as of today a friendly presence. Gabriele Monasterio was the inspiring example of my clinical years. My critical conversion to epidemiology was guided by Richard Doll, who became a lifelong professional and personal relation, and my three years with Giulio Alfredo Maccacaro in Milan and seventeen years with Lorenzo Tomatis in Lyon have profoundly shaped what I am.
What are you most proud of in your career?
The development of multi-centric epidemiological research on disease etiology at the International agency for research on cancer (Iarc) in Lyon keeping it – and all Iarc activities I have been taking part in – independent of any interest extraneous to the dual commitment to science and health: Iarc has been in this sense exemplary among international organizations.
And the biggest disappointment?
Not having been able to combine research in epidemiology with some clinical activity.
List your reasons for choosing your career…
I decided to go into medicine as I thought, a bit naïvely, that doctors will always be on the side of the good, but I had been for quite a while uncertain between medicine and physics.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The fortune of working with intelligent people.
And the most boring?
Not the organizational but the merely administrative work.
Which is the aspect of work you most look forward to each day?
Being active but retired I have a good latitude of choice of what I like each day.
Can you describe your workplace? Is there something hanging on the walls of your office?
In my last offices I had portraits of Gabriele Monasterio, Richard Doll and a poster of Albert Einstein. Now I work at home, and I have no space for placing portraits; there are books everywhere.
How do you wind down at the end of the working day?
No fixed formula, but if something very interesting is pending I just carry on.
Challenges and stakes
What would be the first thing you would try to do as Italian Health Minister?
To fill all the urgent gaps in the National Health Service opened by the covid-19. As to reforms they must start from the recognition that although ‘it could have been even worse’ we are in fact experiencing a colossal failure of public health (of systems, not of people) and notably of prevention: any reform will be futile if it does not radically address that system failure.
And as a Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser?
It depends on whom I would have to advise. Science has a high social value, for people as individuals and collectively. But today a crucial problem to tackle is that science social value is mostly equated with economic value, and economic value largely equated with private profit-generating economy.
What historical figure would you invite to dinner? And what political figure?
Maria Montessori and Giacomo Leopardi. As to contemporary political figures, Fabrizio Barca and Enrico Letta.
Reading and writing
How and where do you find the time to write?
Now that I work at home I have not difficulties in finding the time I need (I am a slow writer).
Offline or online?
The most “dangerous” typo that has gotten out of hand?
A “2” in the denominator of a formula for a test of significance: using the formula every comparison was in practice turning out a statistically significant result.
Have you ever written a poem?
Only one line.
And a diary?
Not a true diary, but almost daily notes of all kinds.
How did you write your first book?
In 1967 as an introduction to epidemiological methods – nothing of that kind was available in Italy – when I was working at the Biometry institute in Milan; Giulio Maccacaro reviewed and prefaced it. As a piece in the micro-history of Italian epidemiology an anastatic copy has been reproduced forty years later (2007) by Epidemiologia & Prevenzione under the original title of “Metodi statistici elementari per l’epidemiologia clinica”.
What non-medical book is on your nightstand?
A tall pile, with three on the top in this moment. “The Janus point” by Julian Barbour, a fascinating discussion on time by a theoretical physicist. The pioneering book in ecology “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. And “Orwell à sa guise” by George Woodcock, an in depth portrait of the author of “1984” by a friend writer.
What is the last book you gave as a gift?
“Une histoire mondiale des femmes photographes” by Luce Lebart and Marie Robert.
What are your favorite writers?
I have always read a lot of books on physics (up to my level of understanding), economics, history, politics, and essays of every kind, but less novels and literary texts. I kept for the future the reading or re-reading of many great classics, it is high time I start… Among detective stories my preferred authors are Andrea Camilleri (of course!), Henning Mankell and Donna Leon.
Which book would you take to a desert island?
Obviously a survival manual.
Memories, passions, and…
Which was your first “exam”?
Lost in memory.
Do you have any hidden fear that you can confide in us?
Better leave them untouched.
A letter you have never sent?
To editors of scientific journals who preach total transparency (a word I dislike, it is often hot air hiding the real thing, i.e. “visibility”) and reject papers and even comments on what they publish with no more justification than “Sorry, we have no space”. Impeccable and totally opaque.
The words you never said?
To the girl I was passionately fond of during three years in “liceo” (high school). She has never known.
The best birthday?
Always the most recent one.
Is there something you would not give up?
My principles, but this answer can only be valid after passing severe stress tests.
Is there something you would like to give up?
Not rarely I feel that most of what I owe is superfluous.
What is one thing that fascinates you most?
The prodigious mix of genius and stupidity , generosity and cruelty in the human animal, an unbalanced biological organism. Amazingly the mix can occur in the same person. Edgar Morin stated it tersely: “Homo Sapiens Demens”.
One of the most important memory in your life?
On the low key the war and immediate post-war years, between age five and ten, and on the high key the birth of my daughters and grandchildren and the 2003 to 2013 yearly concerts conducted by Claudio Abbado, and in 2016 and 2019 by Riccardo Chailly, at the Lucerne Summer Festival.
Do you prefer to be at the table or to stand over the stoves?
At the table, to avoid a bad tasting experience to the other table companions.
Veg or meat eater?
Neither and both.
Wine or beer?
What do you love most about Italy? And what less?
Affectively I like everything, and in my long professional life abroad I have been eager to represent my country. I deeply dislike the latent cynicism so widespread among Italians.
Do you prefer to read online newspapers or print newspapers?
I have adapted to reading online but I still prefer the print if I have time.
Television is for watching…
Too much especially now in Covid-19 time. The “Arte” and “France 5” channels have interesting programs and civilized discussion panels, but I also indulge on detective series as Columbo…
Who phones you most often?
One of my daughters, among other things we often discuss her clinical cases.
The best time of the day: sunrise or sunset?
Variable, but more often sunset.
And the best day of the week?
Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or TikTok?
None. I recently found by accident that a young Nobel laureate from a prestigious US institution has none of these, I am not alone.
Papillon or tie?
What is a tie? I know only of papillons.
What music do you usually listen to and where?
Classic as a background when I work. Classic and opera whenever I can, which means in non-Covid-19 time quite a lot.
Your favorite movie?
Chaplin’s “Modern times” , it is my age.
Your favorite sport?
I always practiced too little sport. I like to look at good football matches and good tennis.
How do you prefer get around the city? Walk, bike, bus or car?
Sea or mountain?
The best holiday?
One with substantial music in it.
Which European city do you love most?
Different cities for very different reasons and motivations, but London has remained at top for me and my wife. However with age the dominant motivation becomes where our daughters and grandchildren live and on that account Geneva and Rome rank high.
And Italian city?
Florence, the Renaissance cradle of our modern civilization, for good and bad.