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Famous scholars from Kiel:

Walther Flemming

This anatomist and histologist from Kiel gained international recognition for his basic research on cell genetics. Dr Helmut Zacharias introduces him.

Walther Flemming was a pioneer of cytogenetics, a field of science that analyses structures and processes in the cell nucleus under a microscope. He was the first person to conduct a systematic study of chromosomes during division and called this process mitosis. His 1882 work "Zellsubstanz, Kern und Zelltheilung" (Cell Substance, Nucleus and Cell Division) is considered a seminal work of modern cell biology.

Flemming started work at the Institute for Anatomy in Kiel in February 1876. At that time, it was housed in the Warleberger Hof, a noble residence in the centre of Kiel where, according to Flemming himself, he had to "contend with two evils in particular, the lack of space and the lack of material. (...) Remarkably few corpses were received". Hence, not all students received material and "only a few slides of bone, muscle and vessel" could be prepared for the anatomical collection, as he wrote in his first annual report. Flemming dedicated the second half of his professorship in particular to histology, the microscopic study of tissues regarded as advanced anatomy.

When he arrived in Kiel to succeed Karl Wilhelm Kupffer (1829-1902), Flemming was already one of the leading cell research scientists; Prague University had appointed him Associate Professor of Histology and History of Development in 1873. His aim was to contribute to the knowledge of cells and cell division and published a work with this name in 1878 (Zur Kenntniss der Zelle und ihrer Theilungs-Erscheinungen). The fire salamander is the ideal subject for this work because of its particularly large chromosomes. After hours of live observations and selective staining, Flemming succeeded in describing the transition from "resting" cell nucleus to a state of division. He discovered that "the nucleus always splits before the cell does". On 13th January 1879, he was made a member of the Imperial German Academy of Natural Scientists in Halle. In the same year, he coined the term "chromatin" for the stainable substance found in the cell nucleus.

Finally, at the beginning of 1880, anatomy moved into a new building next to the Zoology building. That same year, Flemming travelled to Naples, where he studied the fertilisation and division of sea urchin eggs at its excellent zoological station.

Flemming explored the cell proliferation cycle and struggled to find a suitable name for the phases of division that lead to "metamorphosis" of the chromatin threads in the nuclei of all higher life forms. His term for the process of nucleus division that results in two genetically identical daughter cells, "mitosis", has been used since 1882. It was not until 1891 that he realised that chromosomes have to double before they can divide.

Flemming also recognised that reproductive cells do not follow the usual pattern of division and used the sperm production of the fire salamander to describe the difference. He explained that the nucleus of reproductive cells splits twice, producing four genetically different daughter cells, each containing only one set of chromosomes. He did not use the specialist term meiosis at the time but gave a precise description of its two stages of division.

Walther Flemming was born on 21st April 1843 in Sachsenberg near Schwerin, where his father, Carl Friedrich Flemming (1799-1880), was Director of Mecklenburg State Hospital for the Mentally Ill. His son studied medicine in Göttingen, Tübingen, Berlin and Rostock, and in 1870 served as a volunteer doctor in the Franco-Prussian War. He was awarded his postdoctoral lecturing qualification at Rostock Faculty of Medicine in 1871 and then went to Prague. In 1876, he was called to the smallest Prussian University in Kiel, where he spent his most productive years as a scientist and turned the Institute of Anatomy into an internationally recognised research centre for cellular biology. In 1902, he retired as Privy Medical Officer because of a progressive disease. In his last years, he could no longer leave the house at Düsternbrooker Weg 55, which no longer exists, due to a femur fracture. He died of pneumonia on 4th August 1905.

Helmut Zacharias

The author, Dr. Helmut Zacharias,

is involved with cytogenetics and worked in the General Zoology of the CAU until 1994. He supports the initiative of the CAU to name a road after the eminent researcher and university lecturer Walther Flemming. The Rector Professor Thomas Bauer contacted the Lord-Mayor of Kiel on this subject in the summer of 2007. A decision has not yet been taken.

Key word: Flemming's butterflies

The material legacy of Walther Flemming is meagre. His letters and records are untraceable, and all of his anatomical writings and specimens were lost when the institute was destroyed in 1944. Only his microscope and butterflies were spared. In an obituary of his predecessor at the Institute of Anatomy, Ferdinand Graf von Spee writes: "In order to recover at the end of a semester, he used to hurry to the Alps, choose a place to stay, preferably somewhere high, and devote himself to completing his ultimately very important collection of European butterflies. He was particularly interested in their variation". Clara Flemming inherited this collection from her brother and passed it on to the Zoological Museum at CAU. At the time, the collection was housed in four cabinets and contained 4,240 butterflies. The Zoological Museum has only just started to examine the collection, which is not exhibited at present.

For further reading:

Gudrun Peters: Walther Flemming 1843–1905: Sein Leben und sein Werk. Wachholtz Verlag, Neumünster 1967

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