Santiago Grisola wanted to be one hundred years old on January 6 and celebrate it with a big cake. In secret, his closest collaborators were preparing the great tribute to whom they have not hesitated to describe as a “lawyer of science”. Hospitalized for days due to complications derived from the Covid infection that he had already overcome, the professor died in the early hours of Thursday with his mind set on attending the awards ceremony of the thirty-fourth edition of the Rei Jaume I Awards for the Science, innovation and entrepreneurship, the greatest legacies of the biochemist who placed Valencia, his city, on the world scientific map.
But it was not his only effort. His lean and respected figure turned to spread the social value of research, that it must leave the laboratory to become closely linked with the culture. He tried to do it from the Consell Valenci de Cultura (CVC), which he presided over since 1996 and where he shared concerns with the filmmaker Luis García Berlanga, the sculptor Manolo Valds or the writer Juan Gil-Albert.
The son of a bank clerk, he wanted to join the navy, but his mother redirected him to medicine. He finished his studies at the University of Valencia in the 1940s, where he was a disciple of José García Blanco. He was the one who recommended that he go to the US as an intern, always hoping that he would return to Spain. Slow to do it. In 1945, with a scholarship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he got on a ship on his way to America, the same one on which the bullfighter Manolete was going, which made an impression on him and brought him closer to the world of the bull, which urged him to declare himself a Bien de Cultural interest in the Valencian Community since the presidency of the CVC.
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Santiago Grisola, the marquis scientist who opened Valencia to the Nobel
Already in New York he befriended Salvador Dal and with whom he marked his life: Severo Ochoa. Grisola worked side by side with the Spanish Nobel laureate, with whom she had a relationship that went beyond the condition of a disciple to whom she advised in all her research at the universities of Chicago, Wisconsin and Kansas. Ochoa bequeathed to Grisola all his scientific documents, works or decorations that are exhibited in the Museo Pncipe Felipe in Valencia, but the professor was especially proud of having inherited a fabulous library of fiction from his mentor.
Recognition among top-level researchers did not take long to reach the Valencian scientist and was nominated for a Nobel for completing the urea cycle, its two main enzymes, and the composition of glutamate acetyl. When King Juan Carlos granted him the title of marquis in 2014, his coat of arms included the blue and yellow colors of the coat of arms of Grisola, the small town in southern Italy where his great-great-grandfather came from, and a scroll with the formula of the acetyl. That noble title was born from his close relationship with the Royal House since he met in 1976 in New York, shortly before his return to Spain.
The support of Don Juan Carlos was decisive for the biochemist to first create the Foundation for Advanced Studies in 1978 and then the Rei Jaume I Awards in 1989 for science developed in Spain, which I always dream that they would reach the notoriety of the Princess of Asturias. What Grisola can boast of is that, thanks to its established relationships in the US with winners of the Swedish Academy, every year some twenty Nobel Prize winners meet in Valencia to meet and award prizes to Spanish scientists.
Beyond awards, Grisola’s mark among researchers, who found in him and his American accent, fresh air in a country that was beginning to wake up to modernity. “From a human point of view, he quite matched the archetype of the American biomedical researcher, he was a man who He had power, he had authority and he liked to provoke you. Tea throwing out a little elaborate idea to see what you were capable of building, it was quite a fun challenge. Other times he proposed ideas that he believed, sometimes totally wrong, and it was up to you to prove whether he was right or wrong. And he didn’t take it badly at all,” recalls CSIC researcher Vicente Rubio Zamora, former director of the Valencia Institute of Biomedicine and disciple of Grisola.
As an example, he recalls that in his doctoral thesis, which he read in 1975 and was supervised by Grisola himself and Jernimo Forteza, two of the chapters were devoted to demonstrating that two things the former believed were wrong: “He read it, he convinced and signed the thesis” because “it was exactly how a scientist should be, perfectly accessible to criticism, and that was not at all usual in Spain, where contradicting a professor, especially in Medicine, was not easy at all. But is that this is science, and I I learned the scientific method with him. He taught me to be a scientist and not only because of how much I learned from him directly, but because of the opportunity he gave me,” he says.
Your professional and personal relationship has been forged for almost half a century, although you have always called each other “because he was an old-fashioned man.” Rubio remembers perfectly when he met him: “Formally I was his student because when I was starting my Medicine degree at the University of Valencia, a man with a Yankee accent appeared and gave us a lecture on the enzyme phosphoglycerate mutase that I did not understand a thing about. When I finished Medicine, I applied for some scholarships that they gave at the Institute of Cytological Research in Valencia. Santiago Grisola passed by and encouraged me to go to Kansas, so I went there in 1974, and my wife, the researcher Consuelo, also came. Guerri Sirera”, recalls Rubio.
In the US he learned a lot in the laboratory but he also highlights the importance of corridor or cafeteria education. Not only did he work during his American period with him. When they both returned to Spain, they met again at the Cytological Research Institute that Grisola directed from 1977 after his stay in Kansas.
Another of his great endeavors was “trying to give social value to science. He was a great promoter that it was also included in literature curricula but they ignored him. She had a vision that she had to be much more respected by society and I think he has been quite successful in terms of respect for him. From the Council of Culture of the Generalitat Valenciana she has tried to include science as much as possible, although she has not been as successful”.
Rubio also remembers the work he carried out to promote the human genome project, which was originally strongly discussed. “He helped to overcome ethical barriers and also the objections that there were among those who said that it was not going to be successful because it cost too much.” In short, he summarizes, he “has been a great advocate for science.”
Grisola will be fired this Thursday in the Golden Hall of the Palau de la Generalitat and three days of official mourning have been decreed. The president, Ximo Puig, lamented the loss of a “scientific lighthouse”, condolences that were also transmitted to his sons James and William by the main science institutes throughout the country and from the Consell Valenci de Cultura, which praised his “intelligent tolerance”. For her part, the Minister of Science and Innovation, Diana Morant, has defined him as a “teacher of teachers” and “one of the most brilliant minds in our country” who “until his last days was an awakened mind”.
In his last message to the researchers, Grisola was aware of the value of his seed: “Work hard, efficiency will be rewarded. In Spain, interest in science is now beginning”