Autobiographical Reflections:


Dividing into periods something so connected as life (in which the whole past is operative at all times) is merely an artificial device. However, the periods that I have identified to help analyse my intellectual process begin with essential facts that led to significant turning points in my working life. The beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 led to a major change in my life. In this autobiographical essay I will limit myself to pointing out what this tremendous event meant for my future scientific work.

For a time the war shifted the main focus of my interest from one of the two main lines of scientific thought to the other, and also gave them both a new direction by linking them to social reality. The war started when I had been preparing to sit an examination for a professorship for several years, in which experimental chemistry occupied most of my time. I immediately took part in the war and strove (following concerns that are still alive in me) to understand the social forces that were at play, their meaning, and how to act rationally in relation to them. Obviously, this study was no longer abstract: I took an active part in the event, so whereas previously I had followed a line of reflection secondarily and through books, it now had to be contrasted with living reality. Soon I was entrusted with tasks in the war industry and had to make decisions that were as rational as possible, undoubtedly informed by my unitary and historicist conception of human events, but the pressing reality meant that I had to forget what I had learned in books. This must have greatly increased my sense of discipline and responsibility, but for my future research it had a transcendental affect of which I did not take advantage until much later: I experienced evolutionism, in this specific field of human events, as an effective line of thought with a strong tradition, but perfectly suited to diversification and progress when set naively (honestly) against reality.

My absorbing work on humans during this time amid pressing human conflicts did not separate me totally from the experimental sciences because I was assigned to the war industry. Although I was separated from scientific work, I also had the opportunity to experience my scientific knowledge in its social realization and thus perceive an additional meaning in it.

Faustino Cordón and Maria Vergara, his future wife, during the Spanish Civil War. Madrid, 1937

The war was followed by fifteen months in prison and a concentration camp and more than six months of voluntary confinement in Barcelona. Despite all, the hard and oppressive first few months and the later period of isolation were very helpful for my formation and I remember this period with pleasure. For those who seek fulfilment through a long-range project, the most painful aspect of being locked up is feeling unable to act on their environment because the environment closes in on them. From the start I saw clearly that my moral salvation required me to prepare myself suitably for my future career, whatever it might be. I therefore focused on languages (I improved my German and studied English and Italian), and I studied mathematics until four years after my confinement. My concern for thought in general and my interest in biology were shown in the fact that my work on German consisted in translating Mommsen’s History of Rome and studying an excellent treatise on the anatomy, physiology and embryology of the major types of animals. Everything turned out to be very useful in the future.

I think I have occasionally stated that an important lesson from this time that I would like to transmit to young people is that in our so provisional life it is advisable to take any temporary undesired circumstance as definitive, and to take full advantage of it. This period gave me a complementary education that greatly marked the later development of my scientific work. I learned to control my impatience and acquired the habit of regarding my own achievements as temporary, as steps towards greater achievements. In short, we must adapt to our environment in order to act on it in accordance with our own reason when we are able or wish to do so.

Because of the spirit of the post-war period and the side I had taken in the war, I was not allowed to teach science, which I had considered to be my vocation. After six months in Barcelona, I found in the pharmaceutical industry the position that was probably best suited to my scientific training. It was in the Zeltia laboratories in Porrino, Pontevedra, where I worked for four years from the very day when the German army invaded Russia until shortly after the end of World War II. In this peaceful retreat I found the best circumstances to resume my training in experimental chemistry. Fortunately, this pharmaceutical company, still full of the constructive spirit that inspired its creation, was directed by the young Professor Calvet. who had been stripped of his professorship. He had trained in good European schools of organic chemistry and biochemistry and tried to transmit to us his rigorous scientific training as the only way to make us useful professionals. (I remember that before undertaking the first problems of biochemical research, I had to perform, with good outcomes and in accordance with the rules, a long series of organic syntheses and a difficult extraction: crystallizing ascorbic acid from orange juice and then from lily leaves.) I therefore had the privilege to work closely with an excellent teacher, who was a vector towards a small number of enthusiastic collaborators of the best scientific tradition. Thus, thanks to the background I had acquired, I found a very favourable situation for recovering the time lost to what was still my career goal: achieving a good training in experimental chemistry.

With his teacher Fernando Calvet and other friends at a beach in Galicia. 1943
Without resorting to my work notes, I will briefly point out what stands out in my memory from those decisive years. Above all, I showed some mastery and enjoyment in experimental science, whose importance for my further work cannot be overestimated for two very clear reasons. The first reason is the fact that experimental science is no more than the conscious application of the human way of furthering knowledge of nature: acting on nature through appropriate techniques according to a working hypothesis, observing the results objectively, and drawing conclusions that have some theoretical or practical value. Experimental science, together with the collection and classification of empirical data that must be taken to the level of experimental science, is therefore the effective and rigorous way of gathering correlated knowledge that serves to organize evolutionist knowledge. Thus, evolutionist science (the science that seeks an inclusive and historical understanding of nature) is not opposed to, nor is it an alternative to, experimental science, which forms the inescapable basis, the natural and future condition, of evolutionist thinking: only an experimental scientist can be evolutionist. The second reason why my time at Zeltia was important is my conviction (which to some extent contradicts the current tendency toward specialization) that a good experimental training prepares one to work well even in remote fields. Experimental science not only makes one skillful in handling apparatus and observing results, but also educates the spirit to approach any aspect of nature scientifically. How, then, did I learn what I consider to be the proper exercise of experimental science?

First of all, to investigate scientifically, the thought process must take priority over and control the manual manipulation: we always formulated clearly what we wanted to know or do, and the objective value that the knowledge obtained would have for us. I learned that the hardest part of experimentation is establishing working hypotheses, whose originality, boldness and foresight measure the researcher’s ability.

Second, I learned that one must thoughtfully plan the experiment to test the hypothesis, and it must be economical, quick and simple (deviating from routine when necessary). The lack of resources resulting from the World War was advantageous for our training as experimental researchers, but sometimes irritated us. Working with apparatus designed by ourselves for a purpose and anticipating the outcome helped interpret the results and somehow freed our minds (imagining an experiment and an elegant apparatus provides the finishing touch to the scientific thought that it requires). By contrast, having the perfect, complex and expensive apparatus offered by the market, whose full functions often escape us, seems to paradoxically entail the risk of subordinating ourselves to the apparatus, specializing, and working in a routine fashion.

Finally, a third concern of mine at this time was to develop my ability to observe, to follow closely what was happening before my eyes in order to imagine how the processes were developing, foresee results and correct them rationally. I know today, thanks to the example of the great scientists and to experience, that the ability to observe depends on the intellectual height from which one observes and, conversely, the exercise of observation greatly helps to raise this height. When Darwin, one of history’s great observers, formulated the theory of natural selection, he described the process very meaningfully: “At last, I have a theory to work with.”

At the Zeltia laboratories. Porriño, Galicia, 1944

Under the supervision of Calvet, I did my doctoral thesis: the discovery and characterization of an enzyme that inactivated some commercial types of insulin. In 1945, at the age of 36, I left Zeltia to work at IBYS, where I began to research under my own initiative and inspiration. After a short time I was supervising a few colleagues, sometimes in fields based on my previous experience that led to original contributions on the enzymology of penicillin, and sometimes in fields arising from industry. As a conclusion to the above, I think that up to this time the most outstanding feature of my scientific life is that I was fortunate to have received, in adverse conditions, a rigorous, classical experimental education, although in some years more than others.

Rather than the evolutionist biologist that I became over a period of thirty years, I think I was then in a position to be a good experimental chemist. I felt it to be my vocation and was fully satisfied with it.

Before discussing the situation that changed my career, I would like to mention that something happened that would probably have prevented this change in my scientific life. Just after I left Zeltia, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs awarded me a scholarship to pursue my work on enzymology with more refined techniques in the United States. Fortunately, the Ministry of Education vetoed the scholarship. It is highly likely that my specialization in biochemistry would have distanced me irreversibly from my future career in biological research. The life of a scientist is distinguished by a period of accumulation and a period of freedom and development. Returning to Spain after two years could have put an end to my period of accumulation and prevented me from starting my period of maturity, in which accumulation continued to predominate over production. I must say that the news that I had been dispossessed of something that I then valued gave me an unexpected satisfaction, which I attributed to the perception that I was above certain external contingencies, but I also had the confused feeling that I had to find my own way.

Faustino Cordón: Biólogo Evolucionista by Herederos de Faustino Cordón, licensed under a Creative Commons Reconocimiento-NoComercial-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional License. Licencia de Creative Commons