Category Archives: Biographies

Whose Wednesday: Harry Johnston

by Piter Kehoma Boll

More a politician than a naturalist, today we remember a British explorer that was central in the mess that Europe turned Africa into, but also a important in recording Africa’s culture and biodiversity.

Henry Hamilton Johnston, more commonly known as Harry Johnston, was born on 12 June 1858 in London, the son of John Brookes Johnstone and Esther Laetitia Hamilton. He studied at Stockwell grammar school and later at the King’s College London, after which he studied painting at the Royal Academy for four years. During his studies, he traveled through Europe and visited the interior of Tunisia.

In 1882, aged 24, he traveled to southern Angola with the Earl of Mayo (which I guess was Dermot Bourke at that time). Traveling north from there, he met the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley in the Congo River the following year. There, he became one of the first Europeans to see the Congo River above the Stanley Pool (currently known as Pool Malebo), a widening of the river near the cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville. He published a book in 1884 called “The River Congo: From its Mouth to Bolobo” and, in that same year, was appointed leader of a scientific expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro, in current Tanzania. In this expedition, he managed to conclude treaties with local chiefs. The reports of this expedition were published in his 1886’s book “The Kilema-Njaro Expedition”.

Harry Johnston, probably during the 1880s.

In 1886, the British government appointed Johnston the vice-consul in Cameroon and the Niger River delta area. The British had claimed the area but the local leader, Jaja of Opobo, refused to give up the territory. Invited by Johnston to negotiate, Jaja was arrested and deported to London. During the following years, Johnston took part in several expeditions and diplomatic missions that helped the British Empire to dominate more and more of Africa’s territory.

In 1896, Johnston married Winifred Mary Irby, daughter of the fifth Baron Boston. That same year, afflicted by tropical fevers, he was transferred to Tunis as consul-general in order to recover. In 1899, he was sent to Uganda as special commisioner to end an ongoing war. There, he found out that a showman was abducting Pygmy inhabitants of the Congo for exhibition. Johnston helped to rescue them and the pygmies mentioned to him a creature, some sort of “unicorn donkey” previously referred to by Stanley. There were some reports about explorers seeing an animal with a zebra-like pattern moving through the bushes and the expectation was that it was some sort of forest-dwelling horse. The pygmies showed tracks of the creature to Johnston and he was surprised to find out that it was actually a cloven-hoofed beast and not a single-hoofed animal as a horse. Johnston never saw the animal, but managed to obtain pieces of the striped skin and a skull, which led the creature to be classified as Equus johnstoni in 1901. The inclusion in the genus Equus was mostly motivated by the pygmies referring to the creature as a kind of horse. Analyses of its skull, however, soon concluded that it was a relative of the giraffe. This animal is currently know as the okapi, or Okapia johnstoni.

The two pieces of okapi skin sent to England by Johnston and the first concrete evidence of the animal’s existence.

In 1902, when Johnston was back to London, his wife gave birth to twin sons, but both died few hours later. They did not have any other children. That same year Johnston was appointed member of the Zoological Society of London. In the following years, he spent most of his time at home writing novels and accounts of his voyages through Africa. In 1925, he had two strokes that partially paralyzed him. He died two years later, on 31 July 1917, aged 69.

Johnston, as all imperialists of his time, believed that Europeans, and British especially, had superiority over Africans. Nevertheless, he was against using violence against the subjugated peoples and had a more paternalistic view. Although such views are seen as horrible today (or at least they should to any reasonable human being), he was considered some sort of radical for his time, as others had a much worse vision of the African cultures.

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References:

Wikipedia. Harry Johnston. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Johnston >. Access on 11 June 2019.

Wikipedia. Okapi. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okapi >. Access on 11 June 2019.

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Whose Wednesday: Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt

by Piter Kehoma Boll

This week we stick once more with the 18th century, starting in Europe but moving to the other side of the world.

Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt was born on 5 June 1773 in Lüttringhausen, which is currently part of Germany. He was the son of Johann George Reinwardt and Katharina Goldenberg. Soon after he was born, his family moved to Remscheid. His father was his first teacher, but he died when Reinwardt was still young. His older brother, Johann Christoph Matthias Reinwardt, moved to Amsterdam after their father died and started to work at a pharmacy. In 1787, Caspar moved to Amsterdam as well and started as an apprentice in the same pharmacy. There, he met several scientists, including the botanist Gerardus Vrolik.

A young Caspar Reinwardt. Portrait by M. J. van Brée and R. Vinkeles. Date unknown.

Settled in Amsterdam, Reinwardt studied chemistry and botany at the Athenaeum Illustre, a school sometimes referred to as the predecessor of the University of Amsterdam, but that did not allow someone to achieve a degree. Nevertheless, Reinwardt developed skills in chemistry, medicine and botany and was, thus, offered the position of professor of natural history at the University of Harderwijk in 1800. Due to his abilities as a professor, the academic senate gave him an honorary doctorate in 1801.

In 1806, Amsterdam became part of the Kingdom of Holland, a puppet kingdom set up by the emperor Napoleón Bonaparte to his younger brother Louis Bonaparte, who was made king. Appealing to Louis in 1808, Reinwardt was offered the work as director of the botanical and zoological gardens that were to be built. That same year, he became a member of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands.

In 1810, Reinwardt became a professor in Amsterdam. Only three years later, in 1813, the Netherlands regained their independence from France and were interested in re-establish contact with their colonies. Reinwardt was asked to take over the Royal Comission for the Colonies as head of agriculture, arts and science. As a result, he traveled to the Dutch East Indies (current Indonesia) in 1816 and conducted several botanical investigations throughout the islands. In 1817, he founded the Buitenzorg (now Bogor) Botanical Gardens in Java and became their first director. During the following years, he gathered many plant specimens and sent them to Europe, but most of them were lost in shipwrecks.

An older Caspar Reinwardt. Author and year unknown.

With the death of the botanist Sebald Justinus Brugmans in 1819, the position of professor of natural history at the University of Leiden was empty and Reinwardt was appointed to take it. However, he was allowed to remain in the Dutch East Indies until 1821. Returning in 1822, he started as professor of natural history in 1823. At the University of Leiden, he devoted the rest of his life to chemistry, botany and mineralogy.

Reinwardt retired in 1845 and died on 6 March 1854, aged 80.

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References:

Wikipedia. Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caspar_Georg_Carl_Reinwardt >. Access on 4 June 2019.

Wikipedia (in German). Kaspar Georg Karl Reinwardt. Available at < https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaspar_Georg_Karl_Reinwardt >. Access on 4 June 2019.

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Whose Wednesday: Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton

by Piter Kehoma Boll

After some weeks dealing with researchers of more recent times, today we are going back to ye olde naturalists from the 18th century.

Today we commemorate the birthday of Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton, who was born on 29 May 1716 in Montbard, Côte-d’Or, France. His father, Jean Daubenton, was a notary and wanted his son to become a priest, thus sending him to Paris to study Theology. Daubenton’s desire, however, was to study medicine. Fortunately for him (I guess), his father died in 1736, when Daubenton was 20, and so he became free to study whatever he wished.

Studying medicine at Reims, Daubenton graduated in 1741 and returned to Montbard. His intentions were to work there full time as a physician, but things changed a little bit only one year later. The naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, also from Montbard, was planning to write a multi-volume work on Natural History, named Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, and, in 1742, invited Daubenton to help him, especially with anatomical descriptions.

Due to his partnership with Buffon, Daubenton became a member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1744 as an adjunct botanist. During this time, Buffon was the curator of the Jardin du Roi (currently Jardin des plantes), the main botanical garden in France until today, and appointed Daubenton as the keeper and demonstrator of the King’s cabinet.

In 1749, the first volume of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle was finally published, although most of Daubenton’s contributions only appeared from the fourth volume on, published in 1753. The work included detailed descriptions of 182 quadrupeds (mammals) given by Daubenton and this increased his reputation as a comparative anatomist.

Portrait of Daubenton in 1791 by Alexander Roslin.

Daubenton became one of the contributors of the famous Encyclopédie, the first encyclopedia to be written, writing several articles on natural history. He also published many articles in the memoirs of the Parisian Académie Royale des Sciences, especially on comparative anatomy, but also on agriculture and mineralogy. He became a teacher of mineralogy at the Jardin du Roi and later also taught natural history at the College of Medicine (from 1775 on) and rural economy at the Alfort School (from 1783 on).

The controversial political opinions of the writers of the Encyclopédie, who disregarded Catholicism and the Royalty, helped to prepare the scenario that led to the French Revolution. In December 1799, following the Revolution, Daubenton, who was already 83, was appointed a member of the Senate. However, during the first meeting he attended, he fell from his chair after suffering a stroke and died in Paris on 1 January 1800.

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References:

Wikipedia. Encyclopédie. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclop%C3%A9die >. Access on 28 May, 2019.

Wikipedia. Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis-Jean-Marie_Daubenton >. Access on 28 May, 2019.

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Whose Wednesday: Patricia Louise Dudley

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Today we celebrate the birthday of an important figure in the study of the fascinating copepod crustaceans.

Patricia Louise Dudley, often called Pat Dudley, was born on 22 May 1929 in Denver, Colorado, USA, the daughter of David C. Dudley, a salesman for State and School supply, and Carolyn Dudley (née Latas). Her father died in 1932, when she was only 3 years old.

During her childhood, Dudley lived with her mother and maternal grandparents in Colorado Springs. She studied in Colorado Springs High School and graduated in 1947. Soon after, she started her undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado, where she studied with the limnologist Robert William Pennak. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in 1951 and stayed in the same university for her Master’s degree, having Pennak as her advisor. Her master’s thesis was a research on the aquatic fauna of four brooks in Boulder County, Colorado.

Finishing her Master’s in 1953, she pursued a PhD Degree at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her initial intention was to continue to do limnological studies, but ended up meeting the carcinologist Paul Louis Illg, who studied copepods. At the University of Washington and its marine biological station at Friday Harbor, Dudley turned her attention to marine copepods that are associated with ascidians. This copepod group has a huge variety of forms and Dudley dedicated her doctorate to study the developmental stages of this small comensal crustaceans. She defended her thesis in 1957.

In 1959, Dudley joined the Columbia University and started to teach zoology at Barnard College. She remained there until her retirement in 1994 and dedicated her research to the study of comensal copepods, mostly those associated with ascidians, but later also those comensal on other marine invertebrates, especially polychaetes. She was one of the first researchers to use electronic microscopy for the study of copepod structures.

Pat Dudley in her later years in Seattle. Extracted from https://fhl.uw.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2015/10/Patricia-L.-Dudley-Endowment.pdf

After her retirement, Dudley moved back to Seattle and planned to continue her research on copepods there. Unfortunately, she started to have health problems soon after, which forced her to abandon her research. She became very ill during the following years and died on 30 September 2004, aged 75.

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References:

Damkaer DM (2004) Patricia Louise Dudley (22 May 1929 – 30 September 2004). Monoculus: Copepod Newsletter 48: 10.

Wikipedia. Patricia Louise Dudley. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patricia_Louise_Dudley >. Access on 21 May, 2019.

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Whose Wednesday: Élie Metchnikoff

by Piter Kehoma Boll

For the third week in a row, our featured scientist is a Nobel laureate!

Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov (in Russian: Илья Ильич Мечников), also known as Élie Metchnikoff, was born on 15 May 1845 in the village of Ivanovka in Ukraine. His father, Ilya Ivanovich Mechnikov was a Russian officer of the Imperial Guard and his mother, Emilia Lvovna Nevakhovich was the daughter of the writer Leo Nevakhovich.

Metchnikoff ca. 1862.

In 1856, at the age of 11, Metchnikoff entered the Kharkiv Lycée school and developed an interest in biology. Due to his mother’s influence, he was interested in science since and early age. She also convinced him to study natural sciences instead of medicine. Thus, in 1862, he tried study biology at the University of Würzburg, in Germany but, as the academic year there would only begin by the end of the year, he ended up enrolled at the Kharkiv University to study natural sciences. In 1863, he married Ludmila Feodorovitch and, in 1864, graduated at the age of 19, completing the four-year degree of natural sciences in only two. That same year, he went to Germany to study the marine fauna on the island of Heligoland in the North Sea.

After meeting the botanist Ferdinand Cohn, Metchnikoff was advised by him to work with the zoologist Rudolf Leuckart at the University of Giessen. Together with Leuckart, he studied the reproduction of nematodes and discovered intracellular digestion in flatworms. In 1866, he moved to Naples and worked on a doctoral thesis on the embryonic development of cuttlefish of the genus Sepiola. In 1867, he moved to Russia and received his doctorate degree with Alexander Kovalevsky from the University of St. Petersburg. For their work on the development of germ layers of invertebrate embryos, Metchnikoff and Kovalevsky won the Karl Ernst von Baer prize.

Due to his competence, Metchnikoff was appointed, still in 1867, professor of the new Imperial Novorossiya University (currently Odessa University). He was only 22 years old, being younger than most of his students. The next year, due to a conflict with a senior colleague, he was transferred to the University of St. Petersburg but the professional environment there was even worse. He returned to Odessa in 1870 as professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy.

On April 20, 1873, Metchnikoff’s wife died of tuberculosis. This event, combined with his professional problems, made him attempt suicide taking a large dose of opium. He survived and eventually recovered and, in 1875, married his student Olga Belokopytova.

The assassination of Alexander II in 1881 led to political turmoils in Russia, which made Metchnikoff resign from Odessa University in 1882. He moved to Sicily and set up a private laboratory in Messina. There, while studying starfish larvae, he noticed that, by inserting a small citrus thorn in the larvae, a group of cells started to surround the thorn. He suggested that some white cells in the blood are able to attack and kill pathogens, and the zoologist Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Claus, with whom he discussed his hypothesis, suggested the name “phagocyte” to such cells.

Élie Metchnikov ca. 1908.

Metchnikoff presented his findings on phagocytes at Odessa in 1883, but his idea was met with skepticism from many specialists, including Louis Pasteur. The idea at that time was that white blood cells carried pathogens away from the infection place and delivered them elsewhere, spreading them instead of destroying them. His main supporter was the pathologist Rudolf Virchow. Back to Odessa, Metchnikoff was appointed director of an institute created to produce Louis Pasteur’s vaccine against rabies.

In 1885, Metchnikoff’s second wife suffered from severe typhoid fever. As a result, he attempted suicide once more, this time by injecting himself with spirochaete bacteria that cause relapsing fever. He survived again, and his wife survived as well.

In 1888, Metchnikoff left Odessa again due to new difficulties and went to Paris to seek the advice of Pasteur, who gave him an appointment at the Pasteur Institute. Metchnikoff remained there for the rest of his life. In 1908, he won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine due to his discovery of phagocytes. During his last years, he developed a theory that aging was a disease caused by toxic bacteria in the gut and that lactic acid produced by Lactobacillus could prolong life.

He died on 15 July 1916 of heart failure in Paris, aged 71.

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Reference:

Goldstein BI (1916) Elie Metchnikoff. The Canadian Jewish Chronicle. Available at < https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=BQodAAAAIBAJ&sjid=xGEEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6460,5413902&dq=%C3%A9lie+metchnikoff&hl=en >. Access on 14 May, 2019.

Wikipedia. Élie Metchnikoff. Available at <
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89lie_Metchnikoff >. Access on May 14, 2019.

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Whose Wednesday: André Michel Lwoff

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Today, again, just as last week, our featured scientist is a Nobel laureate.

André Michel Lwoff was born on 8 May 1902 in Ainay-le-Château, France. His mother, Marie Siminovitch, was a painter and sculptor, and his father, Solomon Lwoff, was a psychiatrist. Of Russian origin, his parents came to France to escape the oppression of the tsarist regime.

Since an early age, Lwoff showed a strong interest for experimental sciences, but his father pressed him to become a physician. After finishing secondary school at Lycée Voltaire, in Paris, Lwoff started to study medicine at the Paris Faculty of Medicine.

As Lwoff was in the neighborhood of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle during this time, he took the opportunity to follow a technical course in histology at the laboratory of Edmond Perrier. His taste for natural sciences soon caught the attention of the biologist Édouard Chatton, who was just beginning his studies on protists. At the age of 19, Lwoff became Chatton’s assistant and they worked together for many years, leading to the discovery of a whole new group of ciliate protists that they called Apostomatida. Due to Chatton’s influence, Lwoff also started to work at the Pasteur Institute with the biologist Félix Mesnil.

In Mesnil’s laboratory, Lwoff studied different groups of protists and tried to establish a culture of ciliates, eventually succeeding with the species Tetrahymena pyriformis. Through his studies, he discovered the nutritional requirements of many protists and was able to arrange them in an order that expressed a progressive loss of biosynthetic functions. This idea, that evolution could lead to the loss of functions, was the main conclusion of Lwoff’s doctoral thesis. He defended this view with passion, but this was not seen with good eyes by many researchers, who saw evolution as a continuous path toward complexity.

André Lwoff around 1965.

During the following years, Lwoff, together with his future wife Marguerite (who he married in 1952), worked on this subject and managed to prove that many microorganisms are dependent of some compounds that others are able to synthesize themselves, thus proving that evolution can indeed lead to the loss of functions. Such studies later led to the development of biochemical genetics and molecular biology.

In 1938, Lwoff was appointed head of the Service de Physiologie Microbienne, which was created for him at the Pasteur Institute. In 1946, he attended the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium and discovered the work on bacteriophages, bacteria-infecting viruses, that was being conducted in the USA by a group headed by Max Delbrück. Although this group, called the phage group, had made important discoveries, Delbrück rejected any theory that was generated by someone outside of his group. He did not accept the idea that a bacterium could release bacteriophages without being previously infected by a virus. Lwoff proved that he was wrong and that a single bacterium could eventually burst into many phages that would attack other bacteria. Soon it was clear that this happened because the virus’ DNA is replicated with the bacterium’s DNA during mitosis. Lwoff gave the name “provirus” to this virus genome that is integrated in a bacterium’s genome and, in 1965, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for this discovery.

Lwoff continued to work with viruses most of his life, later changing his attention to animal viruses, and was the first to suggest a definition of virus based on their structure and not their size. He coined several new words to describe virus structures, such as virion, capsid and capsomere, and suggested the first classification of viruses.

He died on 30 September 1994 in Paris, aged 92.

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References:

Jacob F, Girard M (1998) André Michel Lwoff. 8 May 1902–30 September 1994. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 44: 255–263. doi:
10.1098/rsbm.1998.0017

Wikipedia. André Michel Lwoff. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andr%C3%A9_Michel_Lwoff >. Access on 7 May 2019.

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Whose Wednesday: Santiago Ramón y Cajal

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Today we celebrate the birthday of a nobel laureate that is considered the father of modern Neuroscience.

Santiago Felipe Ramón y Cajal was born on 1 May 1852 in Petilla de Aragón, Spain. He was the son of Antonia Cajal and Justo Ramón Casasús, a surgeon and anatomy teacher. Because of his father profession, the family changed residence continuously and by the age of 8 he had lived in at least 6 different cities.

More than changing residence, Ramón y Cajal was constantly transferred from one school to another because of his rebellious behavior and anti-authoritarian attitude. In 1863, aged 11, he was imprisoned after destroying his neighbor’s yard gate using a homemade cannon.

Since an early age, Ramón y Cajal showed a great talent as a drawer and painter but his father did not appreciate these abilities. In 1868, aged 16, he was took by his father to graveyards to find humans remains for anatomical study. His father was hoping to make him interested in medicine, and the experience actually made him pursue studies in this field.

Ramón y Cajal attended the medical school of the University of Zaragoza, where his father was a teacher, and graduated in 1873, aged 21. Soon after, the Spanish Army opened jobs to work at the Military Health Center. Ramón y Cajal took the examination and was one of the 30 selected among more than 100 candidates.

Portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal in Cuba in 1874 by Izquierdo Vives.

In 1874, he took part in an expedition to Cuba, which at that time was fighting for its independence from Spain. Once reaching the Island, he was appointed to work as a doctor in the medical center of Vistahermosa in the province of Camagüey, which was in the middle of a swamp. The place was unable to attend all the sick soldiers affected by several tropical diseases and soon Ramón y Cajal contracted malaria and tuberculosis. His sickness, which started to become more serious as time passed, as well as the administrative problems that he faced, made him ask for a license to leave Cuba. His request was attended on 30 May 1875 after he was diagnosed with “severe paludal cachexia”. He returned to Europe in June and visited the Panticosa spa-town in the Pyrenees in order to heal.

Back to Spain, Ramón y Cajal received his doctorate in medicine in Madrid in 1877 and, in 1879, became director of the Zaragoza Museum. That same year, he married Silveria Fañanás García, with whom he would have 12 children (7 daughters and 5 sons). He worked until 1883 at the University of Zaragoza and from then until 1887 at the University of Valencia. At both universities, he developed microscopic studies on inflammation, cholera and the structure of epithelial cells and tissues.

In 1887, Ramón y Cajal moved to Barcelona and learned the Golgi’s method to stain neurons with a dark black color without staining surrounding cells. He improved this method and used it to turn his attention to the central nervous system and made extensive detailed drawings of neural material, including major regions of the brain. In 1892, he became professor in Madrid and, in 1899, director of the National Institute of Hygiene. In 1922, he founded the Laboratory of Biological Investigations, currently known as the Cajal Institute.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal in 1899.

Ramón y Cajal’s works were the first to reveal the true organization of the nervous system. Until then, the dominant idea was that the nervous system did not consist of individual cells as other systems, but was rather a continuous network across the body, known as the reticular theory. One of the main defenders of this theory at the time was Camillo Golgi. Ironically, Ramón y Cajal improved the staining method created by Golgi, as mentioned above, and used it to prove that Golgi was wrong, leading to the development of the current neuron theory, which states that the nervous system is formed by discrete cells just like any other system.

In 1906, Ramón y Cajal was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine together with Golgi in recognition to their work on the structure of the nervous system. This was kind of awkward considering that both scientist disagreed with each other. With this award, Ramón y Cajal became the first person of Spanish origin to win a Nobel Prize.

Ramón y Cajal continued to work until his death on 17 October 1934 at the age of 82.

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References:

Wikipedia. Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Available at <
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santiago_Ram%C3%B3n_y_Cajal >. Access on 30 April 2019.

Wikipedia (in Spanish). Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Available at <
https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santiago_Ram%C3%B3n_y_Cajal >. Access on 30 April 2019.

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