Friday, April 19, 2013

Pan American Sanitary Bureau

I ended up at the PASB almost by accident.  Freshly graduated in 1950 from Hood College with a degree in Spanish Literature and a little typing, I had almost no practical job skills.  I was staying with friends of my parents at an apartment at l6th Street and Park Road and going daily by bus and streetcar to dreary government office complexes answering ads for Spanish translators.  Apparently my Spanish wasn't good enough to pass and I had almost run out offers.

Deliverance came in the form of a college classmate passing through DC who had also been interviewing for work but more in the scientific field.

"You ought to try the PASB," Joan said.  "Lots of Spanish there."

I never heard of it.  Where is it?  What is it?  It sounds like a plumbing outfit.

"It is a health organization, an arm of WHO which in turn is part of the UN.  It includes all the South American countries and the US and Canada.  It is down across the bridge from the Shoreham Hotel in two old townhouses on Connecticut Avenue," Joan said.

What could I do but try.  I arrived at the larger of the two buildings the next morning with my heart in my mouth.  A very smartly dressed Latin woman named Dolores greeted me and gave me a typing test, first in English, then in Spanish.

Sure I had failed miserably, especially in Spanish, I was taken to see a Mr. Claude Inman.  He was on the portly side with a graying mustache and bright blue eyes.  He headed up the cartographic and drafting department:  maps and charts and reports on diseases in the population.  He was about to lose his secretary who was soon to be married.

We talked for awhile about my background.  "I see you learned Spanish whilst in Venezuela," he said. 

"Whilst?"  I was intrigued.

"That's good.  Let's give it a try."  I was ecstatic even though my Spanish typing test was less than good.

The next day I appeared at the smaller townhouse for work.  It was to be the beginning of a most interesting three years.

The PASB, as I vainly tried to explain to the unbelieving woman I stayed with, paid no income tax.  It was an arm of the UN and therefore exempt.  It was the Western Hemisphere Health Organization and kept track of epidemic statistics, disease fighting programs in Central and South America.  It had a fascinating collection of employees from many countries.

Dr. Fred Soper was the overall supervisor.  He had a long career fighting yellow fever and malaria in South America and particularly in Brazil where my boss had worked for him.

Our small department consisted of Mr. Inman, Ignacio from Mexico, Ann McCloud, American, married to an alcoholic poet, and Sylvia Perez from Cuba. It was a small friendly group and I was to type occasional interoffice letters, do filing, and prepare a monthly report on work accomplished (especially maps).  I also rediscovered Latin coffee.  It was my job to make a good strong morning pot of Cafe Bustilo or medallo de oro coffee each morning.

The first day I did this, I had more cups than I needed and went home wired and nervy.  I had forgotten the potency of Latin coffee.

In this office I got to practice my Spanish and improve it.  I learned about the Rosicrucian’s and Annie Besant's theosophy movement from Mr. Inman who was a devotee.  I met his Brazilian wife, Geny.  I learned about the systematic wiping out of diseases like yellow fever and malaria due to something called DDT.  I improved on my geography, learning all the states of Brazil and tiny places in Central America where diseases like oncho and schisto were being attacked.

We all moved to Dupont Circle.  Others joined our group:  Rolando from Cuba (who married a Dutch girl partly because -- and I quote -- they were "so clean."); Pierre from Haiti, a charming artist with exquisite manners.  Along the way, my college roommate came to D.C. and we rented an apartment in Mt. Pleasant.  Silvia got engaged long distance.  Her ring was sent from Havana.  I got engaged and then married to Cliff who had arrived from Texas.  Ignacio's brother, Raul, joined us from Mexico.  He loved Patti Page.

I learned to copy maps on our brand new Ozalid machine.  I got pregnant and we prepared exhibits for a meeting in New York.  Some of the other women in the adjoining offices got together and gave me a baby shower--an utter surprise.  My own section took me to lunch a month before the due date and that was my career at PASB.

I see that the PASB is now called the Pan American Health Organization (much better). They want to move to Jones Bridge Road and Connecticut Avenue area in Montgomery County.  Much fussing about parking and traffic.

Should I go visit them?  I doubt that 40 years later I would know anyone.  And now that DDT is anathema what are they using to fight yellow fever and malaria?

(l-to-r: Sylvia, Ann, Sarah, Ignacio)

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