- Margaret Rodriguez
- BBC News World
When Alejandro Madrigal was a teenager, he went from door to door selling clothes and shoes to help support his family, little did he imagine that he would be decorated by the Queen of England.
“I had to look for all kinds of trades,” says this Mexican doctor. “But it was a period that helped me a lot and medicine came looking for me.”
And he “fell in love” with her. The “crazy” desire to study was not compared to what frustrated a primary school teacher who hit him with a ruler for writing with his left hand.
With her “left-handedness and dyslexia” she reached universities like Harvard, Stanford, University College London, and became a world eminence in bone marrow transplantation.
And it is his contribution to the scientific field that opened a space for him in the list of figures whose achievements and services to the country are recognized by the monarch.
“I couldn’t believe it, one never expects these things to arrive,” Madrigal tells BBC Mundo with the letter in hand.
The letter informed him that his name had been “recommended to Her Majesty the Queen for the honor of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2022 Birthday Honors List.”
OBE means: Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and is one of the categories of a recognition system for the extraordinary work of civilians and members of the armed forces.
Madrigal was the founder and scientific director, for 27 yearsfrom the British Anthony Nolan Foundation Research Institute, which specializes in fighting blood cancer.
As a researcher and professor he has made contributions in the field of hematology at University College of London (UCL) and at the Royal Free Hospital of the University of London.
He led the European Association for Bone Marrow Transplantation and has received multiple distinctions.
The memory of the teacher
Madrigal grew up in Mexico City and has very nice memories of his childhood with his family, but not of elementary school.
“I arrived very excited and happy on the first day of school because I saw that my older brother returned home very happy.”
“When teacher Méndez saw me grab the pencil with the left handHe told me that he couldn’t do that in his room”.
He tried to write with his right hand, but unconsciously moved the pencil to the left, something that the teacher interpreted as an “act of rebellion”.
He snatched the pencil from her and told her that he would not tolerate “insolent”.
“Also, with dyslexia I began to have problems writing certain words. The teacher would put me at the blackboard to write for hours and hours with my right hand.”
“He told me a phrase that always bothered me: ‘You carry shame on the soles of your shoes’ and made me sit in the back of the room, looking at the wall.”
Attempts to write with the left hand often ended in insults, hitting the palm of the hand with a ruler, and days without recess.
“Hopefully, education has changed, but it was quite a difficult period that led me to a very complicated start in the educational system.”
“I hated elementary schoolI didn’t feel skilled in many things, I wasn’t good at soccer and high school wasn’t the best either”.
At 17, he suffered “one of the biggest losses.”
His father died of a heart attack when he was on one of his many trips around the country selling different types of products.
Like his other three brothers, he had to work.
That is the time when he went from house to house with a suitcase full of things, when he was a waiter and when he tried to open a restaurant with his family that “failed”.
He won a scholarship to study computing and that allowed him to get a job in programming.
“I started studying like crazy, I finished high school with a degree of excellence and then came UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico)”.
“As Neruda says in his poem that poetry came looking for him, I say that medicine found me. I already felt that I had a mission.”
At the age of 19, he went to college in the morning and left class shortly before 3:00 in the afternoon.
“I had to travel practically all of Mexico City to get to work. Sometimes I had to hitchhike because I didn’t have enough for the truck.”
His working day ended at night and he reviewed the subjects at dawn. “But I was in love with my career“.
“The best university in the world”
The economic situation in the house began to improve and good grades became, “to his surprise”, a constant.
He went to Tijuana to do internships in a hospital.
“A teacher asked me what I was going to do next and I told him that I wanted to go to the best university in the world.”
“He laughed and said, ‘And what is that university?’ and I replied: ‘Well, I don’t know, which one would it be?’ To which he replied: ‘Harvard’ and I said: ‘Ah well, that one, I’m going there’ “
The teacher laughed again and said: “Alejandro, I’m inviting you to lunch, you have a hole in your shoe And are you going to Harvard?
The answer was a resounding “yes”.
And he got it. Harvard accepted him, after winning a scholarship from the World Health Organization.
At the American university, he met professors Baruj Benacerraf, a Nobel laureate in Medicine born in Venezuela, and Edmond Yunis, a prominent immunology and cancer researcher, who would become his mentor.
“I arrived with basic englishI studied it whenever I could. Sometimes she didn’t understand them at all, the advantage was that Edmond is Colombian.”
“I was at Harvard and I was the happiest person in the world.”
like a daisy
Then came a doctorate at the University of London, a postdoctoral degree at Stanford University, and a job opportunity that he saw in an advertisement in Nature magazine and that ended up marking his destiny.
Among some 60 candidates, he was chosen to lead, since 1993, scientific research in the Anthony Nolan organization, created in 1974.
The son of its founder, Shirley Nolan, had been born with a rare blood disorder called Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome and the only way to save it was with a bone marrow transplant.
As no relatives were compatible, he began the search for a donor, but did not find one and Anthony died, aged seven, in 1979.
In the process of searching, Shirley helped conceive a pioneering system: the world’s first bone marrow donor registry for the treatment of leukemia and other types of cancer.
According to the organization, that record “has helped 22,000 people to receive a transplant that saved their lives.”
Anthony’s favorite flower was the daisy.
“Shirley put it as a symbol (of the foundation) because a daisy has many petals and, even if you take one away, it will still be a daisy: you can give marrow.”
“I took that message to the whole world, to the conferences I went to, and I started to generate records, to help several countries to create them and currently there are 40 million donors around the world,” Madrigal tells me.
forming on the way
The doctor also helped establish the UK’s first umbilical cord bank for transplant and research purposes.
“At the Antony Nolan there are about 10,000 cords and that has saved many patients,” says Madrigal.
In 2020, he was made an honorary member of the European Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation in recognition of his contributions to the field of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT).
“My skin was getting goosebumps”
“I was fortunate to study in well-known universities and that is why they tell me that I have a very good pedigree, but when they ask me which university I love the most, I say that it is the UNAMMadrigal says.
“It opened doors for me and changed the universe for me.”
The researcher has published more than 500 articles in specialized journals and has given hundreds of conferences in more than 50 countries.
In his house he shows us the pictures he has painted and the two books he has written: Nosotros and Días de rage.
He says his “fight to the death” is against cancer.
He is currently working on a project to develop cell therapies against different types of this disease, not just leukemia.
Following the retirement of Madrigal by Anthony Nolan, its director, Henny Braund, gave a speech in his honor.
He listed several achievements and added that his legacy went beyond the scientific: “More than anything, his contribution to the world of individuals who have been given a second chance at life directly thanks to his research cannot be underestimated.” “.
He concluded: “On behalf of Anthony Nolan, the global scientific community, the patients whose lives you have saved, you will never be forgotten. Thank you”.
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Alejandro Madrigal, the Mexican scientist who is honored on the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II in full celebration of the Platinum Jubilee – BBC News Mundo