Facing the Flame

It was said to be the finest circus in all of Latin America. On 17 December 1961, the Brazilian-run Gran Circo Norte-Americano had set up its tent in Niteroi, across the bay from downtown Rio de Janeiro, when midway through her routine, trapeze artist Antonietta Estavanovich noticed flames beneath. The fire spread catastrophically quickly through the nylon tent. It took just three minutes for the structure to collapse, causing a stampede among the 2,500-strong audience. Three hundred and twenty-three perished instantly, either trampled or burnt to death. Most of the fatalities were children. Hundreds more required hospital treatment and within hours were visited by the then Brazilian president, Joao Goulart. “In long rows of beds were 500 badly burned youngsters,” writes Jay Robert Nash in Darkest Hours. “Goulart broke down and was led away in tears, saying, ‘My God, it’s not possible.’”


One of the men treating the injured youths was the late Dr Ivo Pitanguy, one of only a handful of doctors in Brazil at the time with the necessary expertise to reconstruct burnt skin. It was an experience that was to inform his life philosophy. “I saw the importance of saving lives and saving functions,” Pitanguy later told the Guardian, “but it seemed that nobody gave importance to the stigma of deformity and how people suffered with that.”


Trained in the US and Europe, Dr Pitanguy came to be regarded among the world’s finest plastic surgeons. Two years after the cataclysmic circus fire, he founded the Pitanguy Clinic, a leading medical institute that specialises in cosmetic surgeries, hair transplants, body contouring and reconstruction, providing training for surgeons from across the globe. The year before the fire, the pioneering medic, who was head of Souza Aguiar Hospital’s burns and plastic surgery department, opened the 38th Infirmary Department of Plastic Reconstruction Surgery in Rio, often offering free treatments and surgeries for those suffering financial hardship.


“Plastic surgery had a very elitist image in Brazil,” writes Surajit Bhattacharya, in the Indian Journal of Plastic Surgery. “Dr. Pitanguy’s versatility not only projected him into the national spotlight but also it went some way towards softening negative public perceptions of plastic surgery, as did his work on the burns suffered by the Formula One Driver Niki Lauda in a crash in 1976.”


His reputation attracted the attention of the elite, and Pitanguy earned vast fortunes performing cosmetic procedures on countless Hollywood stars, politicians, businesspeople and royals. Rumours swirled, but Pitanguy always remained famously tight-lipped, never confirming whose famous faces he’d enhanced. New York magazine called him the “king of plastic surgery”, Germany’s Der Speil labelled him the “Michelangelo of the scalpel” and Salvador Dali painted his portrait. It was said that only Pele carried more Brazilian clout on the international arena. But even during the height of fame, Pitanguy would regularly donate his time and expertise to those less well-off, and ensured his staff did the same.


“Ivo Pitanguy dedicated his life to helping people live better,” said Brazilian interim President Michel Temer following the plastic surgeon’s death in 2016. “He will be missed.”


“I learned from him the value of doing something for someone else through plastic surgery,” Dr. Bárbara Machado, a plastic surgeon who worked as the chief of medicine at Dr. Pitanguy’s private clinic, told the New York Times. “It is not vanity — it is more like wellness.”


The timing of the Pitanguy’s death was bittersweet. Darkly poetic, even. Such was the respect and national pride for this great surgeon who had been so shaped by that tragic circus fire that he was invited to carry the Olympic flame on the final leg of the relay before it lit the cauldron at the Rio Olympic Games opening ceremony in the Maracana Stadium.


Pitanguy passed the next day. He was 93.


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces