1977 Roy E. Moon Distinguished Lectureship In Science
Monday, April 4-5, 1977


Dr. Humberto Fernandez-Moran, the first Roy E. Moon Distinguished Lecturer in Science, is often called a "Renaissance man." Dr. Fernandez-Moran, one of the world's greatest electron microscopists, is a biophysicist, physician, neurologist, neuropathologist, radiation authority, inventor of the diamond knife and cryogenic (low temperature) electron microscope, philosopher, and former diplomat for Venezuela.

The invention of the diamond knife earned Dr. Fernandez-Moran the prestigious John Scott Medal awarded by the city of Philadelphia in 1967, putting him in the company of former winners Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, and Jonas Salk. The diamond knife is used the prepare ultrathin samples to be investigated on electron microscopes. The cryogenic microscope makes it possible to magnify objects more than one million times with resolving power which permits observation of structural details barely three to five atoms apart.

With his great science and engineering achievements it is easy to lose track of his greatest biological discovery, the first direct observation in the electron microscope of the postulated regular, concentric arrangement of the myelin sheath of nerves.

Born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 1924, Fernandez-Moran was educated in Germany and entered the University of Munich as one of the youngest students in its history. He continued his studies during the war and obtained his MD in 1944. In 1945 he returned to Venezuela and earned a second MD from the University of Caracas. Then, after a year as an intern in neurology and neuropathology at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., he moved on to Stockholm, Sweden. In 1947 Fernandez-Moran joined the Nobel Institute for Physics as a research fellow and began his work in electron microscopy. It was there he developed the diamond knife. He also studied and did research at the Institute for Cell Research and Genetics of the Karolinska Institute, was a resident at one Stockholm hospital and foreign assistant at another, and functioned as Venezuelan scientific and cultural attache to the three Scandinavian countries. He still found time to earn an MS in cell biology (1951) and a PhD in biophysics (1952) at the University of Stockholm.

In 1954 Fernandez-Moran returned to Venezuela to continue his studies. That year the Venezuelan government gave him a mandate to establish a $50-million national biological research laboratory of his own conception. In 1955 and 1957 he headed Venezuela's delegations to the first Geneva Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy and to the first Inter-American Symposium on Nuclear Energy at Brookhaven. He was also active on the science commissions

A visionary Venezuelan

A friend of mine, Jaime Requena, the same one that wrote the Requena Files on the left of this blog in the Venezuelan links, sent this week to me a copy of his book (in Spanish) “Half a century of Science and Technology in Venezuela” which I am still reading. In it, in Chapter 3, there is an article published in 1950 by Venezuelan scientist Humberto Fernandez Moran. I had never seen this article entitled “General ideas about the foundation of a Venezuelan Institute for Brain Research”, published in Acta Cientifica Venezolana, Vol. 1, Number 3 (1950)page 85-87. Fernandez Moran poses a visionary proposal for a research institute which became a realty under his leadership and is now known as IVIC, Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas. This represented at the time a huge jump in organized scientific activity in Venezuela as well as in the financing of scientific research in the country which still plays a role in Venezuelan science. But if his vision of the importance of organized science and its role was impressive, I was even more impressed about his scientific vision:

“In the last decades a new discipline has been created that encompasses all of the processes of communications, the control and integrated dominance of machines and biological systems, looking for common elements: “Cybernetics (Wiener, Rosenblueth) and is destined to play a role comparable to atomic energy, because it provides the basis for the creation of huge(!!) calculating machines and to the legion of hardware that replaces men and even surpasses him in the execution of superhuman tasks. Each one of these computing machines executes in a determined time certain functions equivalent to the effort of a few thousand human brains. They are only prototypes, the machines of the future that will translate millions of abstract operations in actions corresponding to inconceivable complexity, like it would be for example the automatic control of the whole communications system of a country or the management of an industry. But despite this unilateral superiority these machines can only be considered as primitive models of the brain, lacking intuition, the capacity for creative change and the characteristic autonomy of this organ. One can foresee however, the possibility of associating in complementary fashion the two systems, reaching in that way an entity which would be incomparably superior.....It is impossible to predict in all of its magnitude what this link between these two complementary disciplines will represent for our civilization in the future”

Blows my mind how visionary this was….the work is still going on 53 years later!!!