State of competition: conceptual shoehorning behind priority on calcitonin precursor biosynthesis

Studia Historiae Scientiarum recently published an article in English by Enrique Wulff in the section Science Beyond Borders: “State of competition: conceptual shoehorning behind priority on calcitonin precursor biosynthesis”

In this post on our blog Enrique Wulff outlines the contents of his article:


I present in the article how one can approach the history of calcitonin studies in North America and Europe and how to modernize it, so to speak, by referring to science used as a tool of power. 

I do so by comparing the contrasting experience of people forced to leave the fascist Spain and those who benefited from remaining in the country under the regime. 

I focus on two men: 

  • Fernández Nonídez, an animal anatomist in exile, attached to the Cornell University in Ithaca, New York;
  • and Rodriguez Candela, employed as an assistant professor of physiology (at Madrid’s school of university medicine), after Severo Ochoa had been exiled from his country (a later Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine together with Arthur Kornberg in 1959).

Their studies into calcitonin began in 1930 and 1932, and lasted until 1933 and 1975, respectively.

The example of these two researchers serves as a reference point for me to illustrate the access of fascist scientists to the world of science and politics, and to compare both their strategies in experimental studies and their skills as clinicians. It results in a synthesis that juxtaposes the research style and the achievements of the two scientists, who operated in two very different geographical, social and political spheres.

I describe how at the time of the posthumous publication (1934) of Santiago Ramón y Cajal –  the 1906 medicine Nobel Prize laureate for the research into nervous system (shared with Camillo Golgi) – Fernández Nonídez, an anatomy teacher at Cornell University, was ultimately acknowledged to be the first researcher to discover that parafollicular cells in the thyroid excrete calcitonin, although the actual discovery of the calcitonin precursor had to wait until 1975 for the results of the final studies done by Candela in Madrid. Science seen as a tool of power varied accordingly in these two geographical, social and political realms. The types of relationships that can be identified between the two scientists in different geographical contexts, shed interesting light on their common interest in the topic of calcitonin. Legally bound to abide by the restrictions imposed on them as a result of World War II, both Spaniards contributed to science in opposed territories. From Nonídez’s participation in Cornell University, an attractive place to discuss the news from the Nobel Committee, it can be derived that he had to admit that the discoveries on the specialized cells that sense the blood’s oxygen levels were awarded to a Belgian physiologist. While the nature of power inside Spain, made Candela completely outside the realm of calcitonin discourse for several decades.

Nonídez’s approach to the controversy over the 1938 Nobel Prize was accepted and developed on the pages of the Ciencia journal, published in 1940–1975, by the Spanish community of medical and scientific workers in exile related to the government in exile in Mexico (Federal District).

Nonídez made clear that Fernando de Castro had been the first to describe the chemoreceptor. He noted how both the Nobel awardee and De Castro studied the electrical currents throughout the cardiac cycle. As a representative of Cajal School, De Castro oriented the research towards glomus caroticum (carotid body) as the center of chemosensory reflexes, and Nonídez discussed the results of his 1926 and 1928 studies. However, the Belgian physiologist did not directly address the primacy of this small structure in chemoreception until after the visits of De Castro to his Lab at Ghent University (1929, 1932). He also did not discuss his research in publications, and this is probably where the origin of the error he made, i.e. in failing to differentiate between the site at which blood pressure and its composition are detected. Finally, Nonídez acknowledged the winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, although he used a footnote for that.

A legend circulates that during the deliberations of the Nobel Committee, someone argued at lunch in favor of Fernando de Castro’s nomination and another committee member, remembering the war that was desolating Spain at the time, asked: “Does someone know if De Castro is still alive?” 

According to Nonídez, De Castro thought that the function of the carotid body was to detect the chemical composition of blood through sensitive nerve endings coming from the glossopharyngeal nerve. Without such anatomical knowledge and De Castro’s study in morphology, the independent studies by Heymans would have looked rather differently. Many members of the scientific community certainly believed then and still do today that Fernando de Castro should have shared the 1938 Nobel Prize with his Belgian colleague. Indeed, in his Nobel Lecture, Heymans emphasized the contribution Nonídez had made to the localization of the cardio-aortic chemo-receptors as well as the significance of De Castro’s histological research.

Nonídez made a significant contribution to the competition in the calcitonin research in the United States. At the same time, it meant for him living in exile, facing numerous adversities and it contributed to his early demise in 1947. 

In contrast, on December 9, 1943, the ABC Journal announced Rodríguez-Candela’s research trip to the United States as a result of the scientist’s participation in regime power structures. Nevertheless, the sheer invitation of a scientist from Spain testified to a significant change in American policy towards the regime.

In winter 1943/44, during this stay in the USA, Candela compared the alloxanic and the pancreoprivic diabetes at the Metabolism Department, Columbia University. In April and September of 1944, he presented his results and communicated them in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.  Shortly after, he returned to the fascist Spain and worked as professor at the Chair of General Pathology, University of Valladolid and the National Institute of Medical Sciences in Madrid in a department headed by himself. His research of many years culminated in 1975 with the publication on the discovery of the precursor of calcitonin.


Enrique Wulff holds a M.Sc. in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Cádiz (Spain), specializing in regeneration and degeneration of the nervous system. He is a Librarian at the Marine Sciences Institute of Andalusia at the Spanish National Research Council. His key interests are history of medicine and allied sciences.

see the article on the SHS website