Janos (John) Szentagothai
1912 - 1994
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Dr. Janos Szentagothai was born in a family that gave physicians for several generations to Hungary. His father, Gusztáv Schimert was a family practitioner with a large urban praxis and with a strong conviction that in addition to the body, the soul should be also healed. His older and younger brothers received M.D., became specialists and left Hungary around the Second World War and after the 1956 revolution. Janos Szentagothai – born as Janos Schimert – “Hungarized” his family name and consciously decided on remaining in Hungary. He graduated at the Pazmany Peter University Budapest as medical doctor in 1936. Already as a medical student he started to work in the Anatomy Department under the tutorship of the department chairmen, Mihaly Lenhossek.
Szentagohai’s early years as an assistant was loud by the final and futile attack on the neuron doctrine. Experienced neurohistologists wanted to disprove the fundamental thesis of Ramon y Cajal, Lenhossék and His, that a neuron with all processes is a single cellular entity delimited by an uninterrupted cell membrane. Szentagohai with his experiments, reasoning and arguments on the conferences fiercely defended the neuron doctrine in the mid-thirties, when the direct proofs provided by the electron microscopical observations were still unavailable.
Szentagohai described the course and termination of the axons of several spinal pathways using experimental lesions and the classical Bielschowsky type silver impregnation. Since both intact as well as degenerating fibers and terminals were impregnated, and since no color reaction helped to find the degenerated terminals, oil immersion lenses were used to detect the special shape of the fragmented degenerated nerve fibers and terminals. This kind of tedious laboratory work led to the formulation of the neuronal components of the monosynaptic reflex arch, a basic finding that was immediately welcomed and adopted by leading neurophysiologists.
After the years of the Second World War in which Szentagohai served in the Hungarian Army with the lowest rank possible as a pacifist gesture, he was invited to take over the vacant chair of Anatomy in Pecs, South-Hungary. He started to work with an enthusiastic group of medical students and young assistants. His work was summarized in a monograph about the neuronal connection of the labyrinth and the eye muscles written in German and a book in English describing the hypothalamic and hypophyseal control of the endocrine glands. In addition, he and Gyorgy Szekely made fundamental observations on the development of connectivity between neurons, moreover between neurons and target organs. His interest for the neuronal structure of the cerebellum was aroused by studying and describing the origin of the climbing fibers. Later on, with the increased resolving power of the electron microscope, he and Jozsef Hamori studied all types of neurons and synapses in the cerebellar cortex. While in Pecs, he continued his studies in the spinal cord which was crowned by the first synaptological description of the spinal dorsal horn, including the substantia gelatinosa.
The chair of the Anatomy Department in Budapest, where he started his carrier, became vacant and after long hesitation and consultations he made up his mind to continue his research-, educational and social activity in the capital city. With another group of enthusiastic coworkers new research areas were opened: the sensory nuclei of the thalamus with special emphasis on the complex, glomerular synapses, the quantitative analysis of the cerebellum and the finally the cerebral cortex. The international connections multiplied exponentially, invitations to conferences, symposia were everyday programs. For years, before the explosion of the neuroscience, Szentagohai briefed about all important achievements going on in the visited laboratories after returning from his trips abroad, and in Budapest, behind the iron curtain, we were abreast with the rest of the world.
His last brain child was the cortical model around the non-specific cortico-cortical afferents, a cylindrical part of the cerebral cortex with wide base and top portion and tapered mid-section, as it stands in the 3rd volume of his Anatomy Textbook.
He was an excellent teacher. He taught with symbols and citations from the Hungarian and World literature. One of his students recognized the Hanuka candle holder in the antiquity shop-window after Szentagohai spoke about the dendritic tree of the cerebellar Purkinje cells in the auditorium. His lecture about the muscles of facial expression was a stage-performance. Another favorite topic was the peritoneal pouches in the female pelvis. He called a smaller student to be the bladder. Behind him stood a longish student with stretched arms, he represented the uterus and the Fallopian tubes. Szentagohai’s role was the rectum, he stood behind the students, than a helper covered the actors with a piece of bed sheet representing the peritoneum. No one could ever forget the vesicouterine and rectouterin pouches and the broad ligament.
Szentagohai taught anatomy for the entire country when he was invited to put together a multi-part TV show about the human body. The weight of his personality and the earned authority as the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences were benefited for a multitude of noble goals. Public education, schooling, historical books, decency in the research, discussion between science and religions, environmental protection, gardening, aquarelle painting, maintenance and perfection of the culture of mankind – a short and incomplete priority list of his professional and personal doings. He was a caring and loving man of his beloved wife, Alice, an authoritative but tender father, father-in-law and grandfather of several middle aged and young people in the family.
Janos Szentagohai was active until the last minute of his life. The comprehensive review Neural organization written by Arbib,Erdi and Szentagohai turned to be a post-mortem opus.
In 2004 the Neuroscience Postgraduate School of the Semmelweis University adopted Janos Szentagothai's name. The key-note speakers on that occasion - Dr. Tauba and Pedro Pasik (Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York) - invoked their long time and intimate friend with a lecture entitled Janos (John) Szentagothai "A Man for All Seasons", Revisited.
November 11, 2006.
Dr. Miklos Rethelyi