The Scientist and the Thief

Few people enjoyed life as much as my friend José Zadunaisky (Pepe,) a brilliant scientist from Argentina. I thought again about him when I passed in front of the I. M. Pei New York University building in Greenwich Village where both of us used to live. We shared many friends and, in the last years of his life while he lived in New York he often came to our house for dinner, always a generous guest.

Pepe had received his MD degree in Argentina and completed his Doctor of Medicine Thesis at the University of Buenos Aires Institute Of Physiology, whose director was Nobel Laureate Bernard A. Houssay, one of Argentina’s leading scientists. He did postgraduate research in physiology in two of the most prestigious research laboratories at the time, one in Dublin and the other in Copenhagen.

Pepe had an omnivorous curiosity which made of him an unparalleled and entertaining companion, always at the ready with a good anecdote or scientific fact. His passionate enthusiasm for gastronomy and enology were expressed in newspaper columns which he signed as Dr. Zeta.

In the last years of his life he moved to Florida, where he continued his research on the physiology of the eyes, and where he died after a long and uncomfortable time. He had developed diabetes, accompanied by morbid obesity of Orson Wellesian proportions, and could hardly move without help.

To try controlling his diabetes he had a strenuous exercise program, which he carried out in the University gym in New York. One day we had decided to meet afterward at the door of the gym to go for a drink. I was eager to see him because he had recently returned from a trip to Argentina and I wanted to have some direct news from our country.

When I came close I saw him standing at the door of the gym in an unusual behavior: he was laughing out loudly. “What is going on?” I asked him. “I was just mugged,” he responded. “Are you meshuggah (crazy in Yiddish),” I told him, “you have just been robbed and you are laughing. What the heck is this?” “Don’t get excited,” he told me, “what happened is that, as I was coming out of the gym with my gym bag a tall, young and very skinny guy came from behind me, took my bag and ran away like crazy. I was just thinking about the look on his face when, on opening the bag, the only thing he was going to find was a pair of XXX Large gym pants and an equally large and sweaty T-shirt…”

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”