Conquest of the Wall of Death

Not far down the corridor from my office in WHO was a floor-to-ceiling bronze relief sculpture showing the struggle of Man against Death. It was a gift to WHO from the Vatican in 1966, and was located very appropriately, given that a major focus of my unit was to monitor trends and improvements in death rates and their causes.

The floor to ceiling sculpture occupies the wall of a corridor joining the two main office corridors on the 3rd floor of the WHO Headquarters in Geneva.It is approximately 5 metres wide and 3.5 metres tall.

The name of the sculptor is on a side panel. I could not work out the last part of his name (Enrico Man????) and did some googling of various possibilities without success.  But having primed Google that I was looking for Italian sculptors, it offered me an autocomplete that got me to the right person. Enrico Manfrini (1917-2004) was an Italian sculptor who did a large number of bronze statues, busts, rings and commemorative medals for the Vatican. He also produced sculptures for many cathedrals, including bronze doors for Cathedrals in Sienna, Troyes, Damascus and San Francisco. He was called the “sculptor to the Popes” because in his long career he did bronze busts of every Pope from Pius XII (1939-58) to John Paul II (1978-2005). The ring of the fisherman chosen by Pope Francis at the beginning of his pontificate is also Manfrini’s work. His designs look back to the early Renaissance, in particular the work of Donatello.

For some years, I had contemplated this sculpture and dreamed of finding a climbing route to traverse it. As I got closer to retirement, I decided to finally conquer the wall of death. The short video below records that historic achievement.

I did some more googling of WHO history and found that the reason for this gift was the visit of the WHO Director General Dr. Marcolino G. Candau, to the Vatican in February 1966 to meet with Pope Paul VI. Dr Candau (1911-1983) from Brazil was WHO’s second Director-General from 1953 to 1973.

During his term, WHO grew from an organization of 81 Member States to 138 Member States. On the public health front, Dr Candau is most remembered for leading the fight against smallpox, reducing the global tally of smallpox cases from 2.5 million to less than 200 000, leaving the disease endemic in only 7 countries by the time he left WHO.

And I can’t resist. The key to the elimination of a global scourge was the development of a vaccine. And during the 1950s and 60s, most countries required mandatory vaccination of travellers. As a five year old travelling from Australia to New York, I was vaccinated and still have the characteristic smallpox scar on my upper arm. It can be seen on many people my age and older. The fact that the doctor who gave the vaccination used the opportunity to wave the needle around for several minutes while he explained in detail to a group of interns how to do a vaccination led to a needle phobia that I did not shed until many years later. But that is another story.