Federico Mayor Zaragosa

The Spanish biochemist Federico Mayor Zaragosa (born 1934) served on various medical and scientific advisory committees and in the Spanish government before beginning his association with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). He became director-general of UNESCO in 1987.

Federico Mayor Zaragosa was born in Barcelona, Spain, the capital of Catalonia province, on January 27, 1934. He studied pharmacy at the University of Madrid, where he obtained his degree in 1956 and his Doctorate in pharmacy in 1958. He received both degrees with special distinction (Premio Extraordinario). Mayor lectured and took part in scientific congresses held throughout the world.

In June 1963 Mayor was appointed to the Chair of Biochemistry at the University of Granada and in 1967 he headed the interdisciplinary Department of Pharmacy and Natural Sciences at the university. He was credited with helping to popularize the studies of molecular biology at the university level in Spanish universities and contributed to the establishment of the "Specialization in Biochemistry," equivalent to a Master's degree in biochemistry, in the Faculties of Biology, Chemistry, and Pharmacy. He introduced the teaching of molecular pathology and perinatal biochemistry.

Research and Administration

Mayor then went to do some research in England under Hans A. Krebs in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford. He was visiting professor and senior research fellow of Trinity College during 1966-1967. As a result of his research at Oxford, Mayor was able to develop imaginative work on perinatal neurobiochemistry. In 1997, there were several groups in Spain related to the etiology at the molecular level of palsy due to lack of oxygen at the moment of birth, pathology of neuroreceptors, biochemical basis of phenylketonuria, alterations arising from changes in the fluidity of the synaptosomal membrane, etc. However, the massive screening of fetal abnormalities and the appropriate treatment of the identified patients (Plan Nacional de Prevencion de la Subnormalidad) has been, from the social point of view, the most relevant activity of Mayor's research. The improvement of medical care during gestation and delivery, with the postnatal biochemical and genetic analysis, led to a consistent decrease of mentally disabled children in Spain.

Upon his return to the University of Granada Mayor became rector, serving in that capacity from 1968 to 1972. As rector of the University of Granada, he designed and developed a completely new campus and introduced an efficient and democratic management of the university's affairs. Federico Mayor was also the founder and first director of the Center of Molecular Biology, "Severo Ochoa," of the Spanish Higher Council for Scientific Research (1975-1978), the most important national institution of research in this field.

Mayor was a professor of biochemistry in the Faculty of Sciences of the Universidad Autonoma of Madrid, and from 1973 to 1978 he was director of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of that same university. Among the department's outstanding activities were those devoted to the biochemistry of the brain and to perinatal molecular biology. He was responsible for supervising 23 doctoral theses and published 75 scientific papers.

Federico Mayor served as Spain's under-secretary for education and science from 1974 to 1975. He was elected to the Spanish Parliament in June 1977 and became chairman of the Education and Science Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, as well as being the promoter and member of the special commission responsible for studying the problems affecting the mentally and physically handicapped. The national plans for scientific research and for the early detection of children with mental disabilities were drawn up under his direction.

He was an adviser to the prime minister (1977-1978); chairman of the Spanish Advisory Commission on Scientific and Technical Research (1974-1978); member of the Royal Foundation for Special Education (1976-1978); and a member of the advisory committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on "Research and Human Needs" beginning in 1974.

Up the UNESCO Ladder

From 1974 to 1978, Federico Mayor was a member of the advisory committee of the Center of Higher Education of UNESCO, in Bucharest. After having served as deputy director-general of UNESCO from 1978 to 1981, Mayor served as Spain's education and science minister (1981-1982). In 1983 he became director of the Institute of the Sciences of Man, Madrid. He was also special adviser to the director general of UNESCO (1983-1984). Member of the advisory board of the International Federation of Institutes of Advanced Studies (IFIAS) and member of the Club of Rome since 1981, and member of the policy board of the Interaction Council beginning in 1984, Mayor is also a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, and beginning in 1987, a member of the European Parliament.

Mayor's Challenge: Reforming UNESCO

During the period 1978 to 1981 Mayor had an active role in the United Nations University, Tokyo, on behalf of the director-general of UNESCO. When he assumed the director-general position at UNESCO in November 1987, his main task was to undo the mess created by his predecessor, Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, whose 13-year term was marred by nepotism, inefficient administration, and political bias. Mayor also wanted to lure the United States back into the UNESCO agency.

Soon after Federico Mayor was elected he made a special request to the Headquarters Committee of the General Conference of member states: He wanted a new apartment. The previous director-general had been living in the converted sixth- and seventh-floor wings of the agency's Fontenoy headquarters in Paris. The lodgings were comfortable, but Mayor asked for a special arrangement so UNESCO would pay for the rent, maintenance and services of an apartment overlooking the Esplanade des Invalides in the pricey 7th arrondissement in Paris.

In 1984, the United States withdrew from UNESCO, charging mismanagement of "personnel, programs and financical activities." A perceived anti-Western bias by UNESCO members and management also contributed to the U.S. departure. In 1996, however, the Clinton administration expressed interest in rejoining. During 50th-anniversary celebrations of the United Nations (1995), Clinton wrote to Mayor, citing the "great strides" he had made in reforming UNESCO.

While progress was made, in 1996, U.S. news groups found numerous instances of mismanagement and unusual expenditures. For example, while the number of UNESCO professionals assigned to combat illiteracy dropped from 20 to just five at headquarters last year, Mayor approved payments of some $1.9 million to hire outside consultants, many of whose duties were unknown to even UNESCO's deputy director-general and director of personnel. Among the consultants are five senior special advisers "for regions" who were paid about $280,000 a year—despite the fact UNESCO already had assigned to its Bureau of External Relations regional advisers who could perform the same function.

Mayor also directed thousands of dollars in UNESCO payments to organizations led by individuals with whom he had personal ties, according to sources in the inspector general's office. One of the firms in question received $100,000 in UNESCO funds and then vanished. Another received $25,000 to help arrange a UNESCO-sponsored concert by Stevie Wonder; $14,750 of that went to pay for a $4,000-a-month New York apartment the organization's executives claim as their current residence.

UNESCO critics said the appearance was just that. Instead of putting UNESCO in the forefront on issues like education or science, the critics said, Mayor simply did a makeover—one resulting in funding for projects which seem to have little relevance to the UNESCO mandate to promote peace through education, science and culture.

Under the UNESCO charter, Mayor had broad discretionary authority over the use of agency funds. He withheld 20 percent of the UNESCO budget after some states failed to pay the full amount of their annual contributions. Mayor said the money withheld from regular UNESCO programs would be used to fund "priorities" like programs for Africa, women, and developing countries. That may be so, but Mayor also created a new office at UNESCO headquarters to deal with "cultural events." The responsibilities of the new office included coordinating exhibits, concerts and the cocktail parties which preceded them at UNESCO's Paris headquarters.

Supporters of the organization say such incidents should not overshadow the good work UNESCO does. It was instrumental in coordinating worldwide research on oceans and works on preservation of historical sites. Many current and former UNESCO employees acknowledged the good works, but described an organization which appears to have lost its way—one whose expenditures on glittery cultural affairs and lavish consulting contracts came increasingly at the expense of the hard work of increasing literacy and improving education in developing countries.

Federico Mayor Zaragosa was a full member of the Royal Academy of Pharmacy beginning in 1975; an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Sevilla beginning in 1977; a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona beginning in 1976 and of the Académie de Pharmacie Française, Paris, beginning in 1984. He was at one time president of the Spanish Federation of Experimental Biology Societies.

Mayor was a member of many other scientific bodies, including the Biochemical Society, the Sociétéde Chimie Biologique, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also a member of the Instituto de Ciencas del Hombre.

Mayor lived in Paris with his wife, Maria Angeles. They had three children.

Further Reading on Federico Mayor Zaragosa

For Mayor's six-year plan for UNESCO see "UNESCO Chief Vows Major Reforms," The Washington Post (February 25, 1989). "Time for a New Look at UNESCO," by Robert Mauthmer, Financial Times (March 27, 1990), focuses on Mayor's accomplishments during his first few years at UNESCO.