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Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Santiago Grisolía – a life in the service of science

Though just 13 when the Civil War broke out, Santiago Grisolía’s parents thought it better to get him out of harm’s way and send him to Cuenca, where his father had contacts in a local hospital. Taller than most, he stood a chance of being recruited into the war machine, so he moved from his native Valencia to the picturesque hilltop town to begin working in a hospital at a time when most thirteen year-olds would still be at school.

Jose Ribes Bas, Santiago Grisolia and Michel CruzAdulthood came early to Santiago, but then again, his intellectual gifts and fascination with chemistry and medicine made him take to his new environment with typical gusto. Adaptability and perseverance would become important personal traits, easily as valuable as his scientific abilities in what was to be a long and varied academic and research career.

An early start

With all the informality of the age and the situation they found themselves in, young Santiago was given some chemistry and medicine textbooks to get through before becoming an active member of the hospital’s soon overburdened team. Without any formal training and while still a young teen he took on the role of anaesthetist. In a country that had turned into a war-zone the young man acquitted himself remarkably well, taking to his responsibilities and earning the respect of seasoned professionals. “At heart I was still a child,” recalls Santiago, now a celebrated name in medical research. “I liked the respect shown to doctors and I thought the white coats made us all look quite dashing. What’s more, I was fascinated by the work, so from then on I assumed I would become a doctor.”

Still a great fan of white uniforms when he turned 18, by which time the war had ended, Santiago suddenly caught on the idea of joining the navy. “Let’s face it, the uniforms are smarter than doctors’ tunics, but fortunately my parents managed to talk me out of it, insisting that I go to medical school first and then see if I wanted to become a naval doctor.” At this time his family was still living in Cuenca, so Santiago began studying in Madrid, changing to Valencia University midway when the bank his father worked for posted him back there. Having graduated early, at 21, he came into contact with José Garcia Blanca, a prominent scientist who had worked with the great Tannhauser in Germany. Garcia Blanca was to become an important chemistry tutor for Santiago, who spent time perfecting his research methodology and skills while working as a resident at Valencia University.

Santiago Grisolia in conversation“I contributed to studies and also published several papers in my own name, but at that time the system of research grants was still in its infancy and opportunities were limited in Spain. The best way of fast-tracking the learning process was to find a posting abroad, and Professor Garcia Blanca encouraged me to take the plunge.” Exactly such an opportunity arose shortly after the Second World War, when the Marques de Aillon, a high functionary in the information ministry, organised a grant for Spanish researchers in New York. “I was among a small group selected and we were accompanied by Father Sobrino, who was to be our chaperone and ensure we didn’t disgrace ourselves and our country.”

Severo Ochoa

Father Sobrino, a Jesuit priest, was an enthusiastic supporter of research and the furthering of knowledge. In spite of this promising start Santiago didn’t get the break he was hoping for. “It was a frustrating time. I was travelling up and down between New York and DC looking for a posting when I met a Spanish researcher who introduced me to Severo Ochoa.” The latter had his own problems, though, as he had just been kicked out of NYU’s Bellevue Hospital. Fortunately, Isidore Greenwald saw the value of Ochoa’s work and offered him the use of his lab, right across from the hospital. Severo Ochoa, likewise, saw the potential in young Santiago Grisolía, and set him to work as one of his small team of lab assistants. “It was a very special time. The scientific tools at our disposal were still very primitive, but we worked hard and built up a close bond.”

“We used to meet up regularly with other foreign and American scientists to discuss the latest developments in our field. It was a small community, so we became a tight group.” It was in this inspiring setting that Santiago began to excel as a scientific researcher, contributing greatly to Ochoa’s team’s work on protein synthesis. More specifically, he began developing his own theories on the processes involved in the Urea Cycle, the metabolic cycle in which ammonia is converted into urea. Santiago Grisolía would later develop and prove these theorems whilst leading research projects in Chicago and later at the University of Wisconsin, where he met his wife Frances. “She had just completed her PhD in Physiology, so our head of department suggested she become an assistant of mine. The professional collaboration was not such a great success but on a personal level we got on very well.” So much so, in fact, that they got married soon afterwards.

Santiago Grisolia: saving for a rainy dayA proud legacy

After several years as Associate Professor in Kansas, Santiago took a sabbatical and returned to Spain, where he acquired funding for his research projects from the Caja de Ahorros de Valencia, a local savings bank. “This was highly unusual in those days, but it was a very bureaucratic process.” Nonetheless, the support of the Caja de Ahorros de Valencia enabled the foundation of the Instituto de Investigaciones Citológicas, where Don Santiago himself was to become head of cell structure research upon his return in 1977, and later as guardian of Severo Ochoa’s heritage established a museum in his name. In 2002, the institute and its museum moved and changed name, the institute becoming the Centro de Investigación Príncipe Felipe and the museum becoming a permanent exhibition: The Legacy of Science: Severo Ochoa in the Museo Principe Felipe, both within the City of Arts and Sciences complex.

Now, after a long and distinguished career that has seen him publish over 400 scientific papers, several books, receive accolades and awards, and sit on the board of both Spanish and international scientific bodies, Santiago Grisolía remains as active and involved as ever, encouraging a new generation of scientists to continue the work that he and Severo Ochoa started and take us into exciting new territory.

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