Choosing Science: Stories of Perseverance, Humanity, and Success

Dr. Walle Nauta or how to stick it to the Nazis while revolutionising neuroscience

June 20, 2022 Season 1 Episode 5
Choosing Science: Stories of Perseverance, Humanity, and Success
Dr. Walle Nauta or how to stick it to the Nazis while revolutionising neuroscience
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Walle Nauta was not only a brilliant neuroanatomist and scientist of the 20th century, but also a selfless, brave soul. He revolutionised research tools in neuroscience, making it possible to better understand one of the biggest mysteries of humankind, our brain. Exigent, but kind, intuitive, but rigorous, and most of all, humble, he lived a life to remember. 
 List of interesting people: John Boren, Joseph

Brady, Boyd Campbell, Sven Ebbesson, Ford Ebner,

Michael Fuortes, Robert Galambos, William Hodos, David

Hubel, Harvey Karten, JacSue Kehoe, John Mason, William

Mehler, James Petras, George Moushegian, Enrique Ramón-

Moliner, Felix Strumwasser, and Eliot Valenstein.




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Intro: Dr. Walle Nauta was not only a brilliant neuroanatomist and scientist of the 20th century, but also a selfless, brave soul. He revolutionised research tools in neuroscience, making it possible to better understand one of the biggest mysteries of humankind, our brain. Exigent, but kind, intuitive, but rigorous, and most of all, humble, he lived a life to remember. 


Born on 8th June 1916 in a family of Dutch missionaries in Malacca, Sumatra, Walle Nauta spent only his childhood in his place of birth. In the late 30s his whole family returned in the Netherlands in Leiden. Despite becoming a renowned neuroscientist and anatomist, he apparently wasn’t a very dedicated student. He really got into studying only when he was accepted into medical school. It’s like people find their interests and pursue them when things are not shoved down their throats. Who would have thought…

After finishing his preclinical studies in 1937, he went on to do his rotations when the German army occupied the Netherlands. Unfortunately, 2 years later he had to finish his qualifications at University of Utrecht, as his former was closed by the Germans for being a hotspot of rebellion. While working in the Pharmacology Department at Utrecht University he met and fell, love, and married Ellie Plaat, another Dutch Indonesian. Apparently, the smell of pharmacy can work as an aphrodisiac.  

He practiced both as physician and researcher, working at his doctoral thesis. The war years were extremely hard on everybody, including their family. If feeding your family was difficult, imagine conducting research on rats and trying to fulfil all the up keeping necessary. It’s been reported that at some point they ran out of food for rats and they were put in the position to feed them with milk from Mrs. Nauta while she was nursing their first child. I know that desperate times call for desperate measures, but if I would whoop my titty out for science I would probably lose my job. But as a great philosopher of our time would say, Improvise, adapt, overcome.


During the war the Nauta family had the courage to hide a Jewish girl from the occupants. Their luck was that the German administrator of that district played along and didn’t turn them in. But for this act of bravery, their name (Walle and Ellie) are written on the Wall of the Just in Jerusalem. Despite the horrific acts of the german army, they never judged individual based on their nationalities. The Nauta family protected that german administrator until he was allowed to return to Germany. It shows a high value character to be able to show such kindness and self-sacrifice. On October 26, 2008, Yad Vashem recognized Walle Nauta and Ellie Nauta-Plaat as Righteous Among the Nations.


But the war was finally over and the family could return to Leiden where he got a student assistant position. Here he started to develop his obsession for the study of the hypothalamus, a region of the forebrain that is a crossroad of many behavioural and environmental responses, such as body temperature, thirst, hunger, sleep and emotional activity. This happened after he came into contact with the work of Walter Hess who was studying the sleep-waking cycle, as well as Philip Bard’s research of sham rage, which is defined by simultaneous uncontrollable anger and fear. To me it sounds as what one might feel when their mum asked you why Timmy had a better grade then you, what is he smarter than you? You are angry because you know Timmy cheated on the test, but fearful that he might be actually smarter than you for putting in less effort and getting more. Actually, probably that is not is, but I found it to be a funny scenario, all similarities to real life is purely coincidental.  Nauta recognised that there a technological gap that prevented scientists for fully understanding the functions of the hypothalamus, that was the fact the neuron projections for the hypothalamus were not myelinated. That just means that it lacked the protective sheet of cells usually found around the neuronal projections. At that time if you inflicted an injury in an animal’s brain you could later trace the effects of that injury by following the degraded neurons or axons and that was reflected through the destruction of this protective myelin sheet. As you can see, that made the study of the hypothalamus extremely different as it was impossible to tell the real effects of an injury in that area. So, Nauta embarked on an adventure to uncover the secrets that this crucial part of the brain still held by its dear neurons and got a research position at the Anatomy Deprtment at the University of Zurich. He initially tried to get hired by Walter Hess, but he saw no “behavioural evidence” of Nauta’s proposed research plan, so he was rejected. As a consequence, he got a job under Prof Gian Tondury. You how they say, one professor’s rejection is another one’s treasure, or something like that.


Nauta became really popular amongst his students and benefitted from immense support from his supervisor. I wish all of the supervisors would comprehend what a great influence they could have on their students. Nauta’s new staining method (names after himself) used silver nitrate and was able to mark all the fibers, including the ones that were degenerating. A later iteration of the protocol was able to suppress the staining in the healthy neurons, showcasing only the ones that were degenerating. This significant breakthrough of the Nauta-Gygax method enabled scientists to perform major anatomical discoveries of the central nervous system. 


The development of this technique seems to have been largely done through trial and error, and also a bit of luck. For instance, they noticed a surprisingly good result one day and traced it back to the usage of an old bottle of formalin that had an unusual high concentration of formic acid. Being more of a biology expert, he partnered up with Paul Gygax and Lloyd Ryan in order to understand the chemical mechanism behind this effect. The first was a PhD student in Organic chemistry at te Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the latter was a former US Air Force major and a passionate amateur photographer. I’ve been told that networking is a must, but never thought make friends in the military tho. Reading through a short biography on Nauta done by Edward G. Jones, it seems that the only one that actually understood the chemical processes behind the technique was Gygax. What makes this even more amusing is that the author of the biography recalls the fact that he surprised on his own students bowing three times in the direction of Boston (where Nauta will move later in his career) before performing the staining. The comments that “Whether this was respect, disrespect, or merely superstition was never quite clear”, but I think we all need someone to watch over us and our guardian angels probably don’t have PhDs in science, so you have to go back to the source. 

The news about this revolutionary technique spread like wildfire and soon Nauta was invited by David McKenzie Rioch to do a live demonstration. McKenzie later offered in a position at the Research Division of Neuropsychiatry in Washington DC, later moving to Massachusetts at MIT, where all a lot of the cool kids go. Here he contributed to remarkable and valuable research where other scientists distinguished themselves. If you are interested, check out the list in the description and read more about them. 


And now a little break in the program for our little contest. Who was awarded the Nobel prize for Medicine for a very controversial and drastic neurosurgical procedure that involves an incision in the prefrontal cortex? The complete answer should include the name of the person and procedure, plus if his prize was revoked. Ok, now back to the program.


Two things that I really liked about Nauta was that he had a distaste of publishing in a rush just because “publish or perish” is a very prevalent mindset in the scientific community even today. Instead, he perfected his results and papers until they reached the level of accuracy and relevance that he considered appropriate. I do appreciate someone that sets the bar high and is unapologetic about it. The second was that he gave full recognition for his student’s results, a lot of the times leaving his name out of the publications, which is unheard of for me. I think I would rather get a kidney from my supervisor than get that. Bright side is that at least I can sell a kidney. You gain some you lose some. 


 As a result, his early work has been regarded as the reference for the research that followed and is a fundamental part of the textbooks. He studied the fornix, amygdala, basal ganglia, substantia nigra, and spinothalamic tract. No, the names are not inspired from Star Wars. I’ll put a picture and some more explanations on this vital brain components on the Instagram page, as well as recommendation for a really cool book on everything brain and behaviour. 

Needless to say he received a lot of awards and recognition, thankfully while he was alive. His approach was to look at the big picture first, by paying attention to the ways it’s smaller came together. He was regarded as inspiring pedagogue, passionate about sharing the scientific knowledge and leading by example. Although his experience during WWII showed how ugly humanity can be, he didn’t let that corrupt him but instead cherished kindness and humility. He enabled us to understand at an anatomical why we feel and behave, which gives us more power over our own lives. His story was indeed one of success, but most of all humanity and perseverance. He died on the 24th of March 1994. 

I will finish with an excerpt from his memoir that I feel encompasses the essence of this episode

“Walle Nauta represented a type of neuroscientist that is no longer with us. A classical neuroanatomist with an enormous depth of knowledge who could work on any part of the brain, but one who was also in touch with modern developments in neuroscience and able to cast his neuroanatomical studies in a modern context. With a strong base in medicine, as so few basic scientists have today, he never lost sight either of the necessity of casting one’s research in the context of the diseased nervous system. He was perhaps the epitome of nonreductionism, not a prevailing motif in today’s neuroscience. Yet his influence was broad, not only on account of his modernizing, almost single handedly, the whole field of experimental neuroanatomy but also because of the influence that he had over so many students and fellow scientists as a collaborator or teacher or as an author of some of the most fundamental papers in neuroscience.”