Interview with Dr. Uner Tan, The Artist Cum Scientist

Dr. Uner Tan of Cukurova University in Adana (Turkey) rose to international fame with his discovery of the Uner Tan Syndrome – the genetic condition found in some Turkish families (and later in other countries) wherein individuals exhibit quadrupedal motion (walking on all fours) since childhood. This discovery was all the more important as it marked the culmination of research on reverse evolution, i.e. reappearance of ancestral traits in a more advanced/newer species. In the following brief chat with Dr. Tan, I asked him questions not about his research on Uner Tan Syndrome (having interviewed him twice on that already) but about the early life, education, family, and favorite pastime activities of this world famous physiologist.

Ernest: Dr. Tan, how did you spend your childhood?

Dr. Tan: I was born in Unye on the Eastern Black Sea coast on May 1st, labor and spring feast day, in 1937. I remember in my childhood (at around four years old) we lived in a small village on the Eastern Black Sea because of my father’s occupation (health inspector for the war against syphilis). I did not play with other children; I was a serious child, most of the time walking around the forest, observing the animals and plants with admiration. So, I had different interests in my mind other than playing with children. I was inclined to do experiments. For instance, one day I wanted to run under a rainbow because I had heard that if a boy passed under a rainbow he would turn into a girl, and if a girl passed under the rainbow she would turn into a boy. I thought I would pass under the rainbow and become a girl, and on my way back, I would turn into a boy again. I did experiments under the rainbow, but without success. I also loved reading and writing, which I had learnt before going to school. In primary school in 1945, I was a hard working pupil, and liked literature and math. I had also started to take violin lessons from our music teacher. So, I spent my childhood reading, writing, observing, and experimenting with nature. Later on, in my late-childhood, I also spent time playing the violin, and composing some music. Thus, my scientific odyssey started when I was a child and continues throughout different periods, as if it has been pre-programmed.

Ernest: Tell briefly about your education and specialization.

Dr. Tan: Let me divide it in parts for you.


I entered the medical school at Ege University in 1956, because my parents forced me. Actually, I had an endless interest in philosophy, physics, and classical music. When I was a first year student, I built up many hypotheses, like the emergence of the Universe. I asked if life could appear spontaneously.

To solve this question, I did an experiment. I filled a lunch box with bread and closed the lid tightly so that no air could get into the box. I waited for one month. As I opened the box, I saw that hundreds of small red eyed flies flew into the air. I watched this event with great excitement, and thought that the experiment was successful: life could be formed spontaneously.

Again, during my first year in medical school, I bought a cheap microscope. I mixed some water with soil and then started to observe the mixture under the microscope. I was watching this mixture constantly because a lot of beautifully colored single cells were moving around rapidly in it. Some of these cells soon started to divide. Maybe they were some kind of amoeba. With great excitement, I watched the cells multiplying.

In the second year of medical school, I discovered a reflex: the “middle finger reflex”. I studied this reflex with my physiology teachers (Prof.Dr. Nathan Scheinfinkel and Dr. Nuran Hariri). I was very excited. I recorded their middle finger reflexes using a kymograph. I filed the reflex records with great attention. Interestingly, the patella reflex could not be elicited in everyone, but my middle-finger reflex, without exception, could be elicited in everybody. In order to study this reflex in patients, I went to the Psychiatry Hospital in Manisa and spent a week examining this reflex in the patients.

During my third year of medical school, I decided to be educated as a scientist, but I did not know how to become a scientist. There was a student assembly in Ege University and they were helping volunteer students to go to Germany for three months. I joined the program and applied to go to Goettingen in Germany.

During that time (in 1960), a military action took over the government. Leaving Turkey was forbidden, but I was able to get my passport. Prof.Dr. Duenzing from the neurology department in Goettingen University had found me a job as a nurse assistant in the psychiatry department. I had special permission from the ministry of internal affairs and I flew to Goettingen, first, in a one-engine small plane to Athens, from there in a two-engine plane to Rome, and then to Frankfurt. I had 20 Marks in my pocket. I used this money to go to Goettingen by train. I had a violin in one hand and my suitcase in another. I went to the hospital where I was going to work. When I got there, I learnt there was no accommodation for me in the hospital. In the evening, a man from the hospital accompanied me to a dormitory. I was given a great-looking, big room for which I did not have to pay. I stayed there for one month, and then I was transferred to another dormitory for nurse assistants. I stayed there for six months and once again I was not required to pay for it (because I had no money).

I worked at the department of psychiatry as a nurse assistant for eight months, saved some money, and then applied to Goettingen University to study medicine. This was one step further in my goal of becoming a scientist.

Professor Lendle

To be enrolled in the medical school, I was sent to Prof. Dr. Lendle, the head of the department of pharmacology and the exam commission. He wanted to know if I would be a suitable student for Goettingen University. We had the following conversation:

Professor Lendle: “Why did you come to Germany?”

Me: “To become a scientist.”

Professor: “Do you have anything to prove your scientific talents?”

Me: “Yes, I have.”

Professor: “Can you show me those?”

Me: “I had experiments with worms and flies; I found the middle-finger reflex.”

Professor: “Have you reflex records with you?”

Me: “Yes, here you are.”

Professor Lendle looked at the reflex records seriously. He did not say anything, but he was apparently amazed. I felt he liked me.

Professor Lendle continued: “Do you have any hobbies?”

(I knew now he was trying to decide what kind of a man I was: a schizophrenic person or a serious candidate for science.)

I replied “Yes, I play first violin in a philharmonic orchestra.” The Professor was silent again, but his face reflected happiness.

He said: “I will send a report about you to the ministry of higher education and I will ask for your acceptance to Goettingen University.”

As I learnt later, Prof. Lendle had written two full pages about me and asked for my acceptance. Later, during my time at the University, Prof. Lendle and I became very good friends. Every time he saw me, he used to say “Hi! Herr Ataturk.”

Georgia Augusta University and Max-Planck Research Institute in Goettingen

In 1961, I started studying medicine in the third year of Goettingen medical school. Once, I wanted to tell a professor about my experiments with earth worms, but knew nobody I could talk to about my experiments. Then I chose the most sympathetic name from the list of professors: Prof. Ochwadt, who was working at the Max-Planck Research Institute. At the time, I knew nothing about the Max-Planck Institutes in Germany. What a serendipity! I told Dr. Ochwadt about my worm experiments. We had a short discussion, but we couldn’t agree over the physiological mechanisms. I visited Dr. Ochwadt a couple more times. At the end, he said that “there have always been students like you, who came here and discussed something, but usually they disappeared after a single discussion. You are the first one who insists in discussing with me again and again. You’d better quit talking about worms and do your PhD thesis with me.” But, he was studying the kidney. I told him that I preferred brain research. Then, he introduced me to a young neurophysiologist, Dr. Joachim Haase, and left us alone.

Dr. Joachim Haase and my first neurophysiology experience

I decided to do my PhD thesis with Dr. Haase. He had recently returned from Sweden after working with Prof. Ragnar Granit, who received the Nobel Prize for the neurophysiology of vision, but actually Dr. Haase worked on spinal motor control. Dr. Haase gave me two of his essays which were in English. He told me to learn English in two months and read them.

He asked: “Do you have skilled fingers?” I said: “I really do not know, but my fingers can play violin.” He was silent, with no sign, no reaction, like Prof. Lendle, but I felt that he was glad. He usually did not say anything if everything was well done, but became very angry at even the smallest failure.

Dr. Haase gave me a task: if I could answer this question, I could start to work with him. I accepted at once, since I wanted to study the nervous system. We did the first experiment together. It was very difficult. We were using cats. After an initial decerebration under ether anesthesia, we opened the spinal cord by laminectomy without anesthesia, and then we prepared the medial and lateral branches of the gastrocnemius nerve; the soleus nerve was also prepared in the hind leg. In the spinal cord, we cut the ventral roots L6, L7, and S1 under a microscope. Three stimulating electrodes were put on three prepared nerves. One of the prepared ventral roots was divided into filaments to allow us to find a single motor neuron by stimulating the extensor nerves or stretching the gastrocnemius muscle. Splitting a ventral root was supposed to be done under a preparation microscope, but I did not use it – I used my eyes – to the amazement of people watching. After one month, I had answered the question: one extensor motor neuron was also stimulated by skin afferents. So, I was allowed to work with him. The topic of my work was the effects of amphetamine on spinal extensor and flexor motor systems.

Beside the lectures in the medical school (which I only rarely attended, preferring to work in the laboratory), I also attended lectures in the schools of philosophy and music, and played violin in the Academic Orchestra.

I usually added my philosophical considerations into the protocols following each experiment. However, Dr. Haase was not pleased about it. He told me that I could do philosophy when I reached the age of 60, and he asked me to make a choice between philosophy and experimenting there. I followed him and quit doing philosophy.

My struggles ended up with graduation from the medical school with an average degree in 1966; the same year, I completed my Ph.D. with an excellent degree.

Turkish Embassy

When I went to Germany, my passport was valid only for six months. While I was attending the University, I had a problem with my passport’s expiry date. The Turkish embassy was not extending the date because I was not a registered student in the ministry of education. In Germany, everybody had to be registered but I could not because I did not have a valid passport. So I was approached by the police, who told me that I either had to have a passport or return to Turkey. I told them that I was a student at Goettingen University and that I’d like to finish my education in the medical school. The policeman said:

“Okay, you can stay here, but you should inform us if you ever leave Goettingen.” This permission lasted for almost nine years. I cannot forget this help.

After completing my medical studies, I was accepted as a research assistant in the Max-Planck Research Institute in Goettingen, but I still needed a passport. The Director of the Max-Planck Institute decided to go to Bonn and talk to the Turkish Ambassador about my passport. As he returned, he told me that everything was okay now, and that I could go to the Turkish Embassy and get my passport extended. The next day I went to Bonn. I had to wait for the Ambassador for nearly two hours. A short conversation took place between us:

Ambassador: “What are you?”

Me: “Nothing, I am only a hardworking researcher, and they like me because of my success.”

Ambassador: “Okay, I extend your passport to return to Turkey within six months.”

Me: “Thank you. Bye Mr. Ambassador.”

I returned to Goettingen. Our director was astonished about our Ambassador’s behavior, since he had been informed quite differently.

Returning to Turkey

In 1969, I decided to return to Turkey. I preferred Hacettepe University, since the President, Prof. Dogramaci, offered me opportunities more favorable than Ord. Prof. Dr. Sadi Irmak at Istanbul University.

When I started at the Institute of Physiology of Hacettepe University, neurophysiological studies were not carried out on an international level in Turkey. I started to work on spinal motor neurons in decerebrate cats. I started working from early morning and ending the experiment 24 hours later. After six months, I started to write my first scientific paper without the help of my instructor. I was on my own. I wanted to see whether or not I could survive in the neurophysiological community. Fortunately, the paper was not rejected. I usually published one or two papers a year while I was at Hacettepe University. This period lasted four years, followed by military service in the Air Force for 18 months. I then spent 23 years at Ataturk University at Erzurum in Eastern Turkey, then four years at the Black Sea Technical University in Trabzon. I then moved to Cukurova University in Adana, southern Turkey, and retired in 2004. I am now a senior researcher in the same University after I retired in 2004 from the Medical School. Actually, this has been a long way, full of difficulties; struggles of a scientist with inborn talents, including science, creative thinking, music and philosophy, associated with curiosity, hard work, patience, insistence, enthusiasm, and intuition. Perhaps, a man is born a scientist, with a science-oriented human mind, following a pre-wired behavioral neural pattern. Apparently, nothing could change this pattern of neural networks – from birth to the ultimate end…

Thank you Dear Ernest for giving me this opportunity for a quick scan of my scientific odyssey.

Ernest: How long have you researched genetics?

Dr. Tan: Since 2005, after discovering Uner Tan syndrome. Before that, I was not studying genetics in detail…

Ernest: Okay, tell a little about your house, family, children etc.

Dr. Tan: I have married four times, divorced three times. My fourth marriage has so far lasted 18 years. My first marriage lasted for 10 years and I had two sons from my first marriage: Alper (now 40) and Utkan (35). The second and third marriages lasted only two years each. I did not want any children from these marriages, since a child should grow up in a happy family, in my opinion.

I have two beautiful daughters from my fourth marriage: Sevgi (means love, 14 years old), and Sezgi (means intuition, 10 years old). These names belong to me, since I had persuaded my wife I’d like to name my child if we had a daughter.

I cannot blame my ex-wives. One was an engineer, one was a psychologist, one was a pharmacologist. It is indeed difficult to live with a man fully occupied with science, long experiments (24 hours, or once four days without interruption), philosophy, and music, playing violin every day… so, I had little time for my wives. Now, my current wife is a neurologist who shares my scientific life, and who makes very valuable contributions to the knowledge of Uner Tan syndrome. She always accompanies me if I discover a family with members exhibiting Uner Tan syndrome, and makes neurological examinations, family trees, and so on. In addition to her patients, she is also intensely interested in domestic affairs, children, and not last in me, especially in my health. My daughters are very bright and successful at school. One of them, the younger one, has just started to take violin lessons. Both of them like reading, using computers, and scientific affairs. So I live in a happy family now, and we all share the most beautiful aspect of life: being together with love.

Ernest: What do you usually do in your free time?

Dr. Tan: If I find time, I still practice violin, play my favorite music pieces from my favorite composers such as Beethoven and Bach etc…

I also like barbeques with the Turkish national drink “Raki”, a hard drink with high alcohol concentration. I also like dancing, especially the tango, and I like listening to the dynamic music of the tango.

In earlier times, I collected stamps, and now have a big stamp collection.

I have little time to read books now, but I do read books on the philosophy of science, and books about the evolution of the Universe as a whole…