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Dr. Walle J.H. Nauta, Institute Professor emeritus and one of the world's leading authorities on the anatomy of the brain, died March 24, in Mt. Auburn Hospital. He was 77 and lived in Newton. He had been hospitalized a few days with a blood infection, a family member said.
Dr. Nauta, one of the founders of the modern field of neuroscience, made singular contributions to the understanding of the structure and connectivity of the brain.
Some 40 years ago, he developed techniques that enabled experimenters to trace fiber connections in the brain. He and other researchers used the method to chart systems in the forebrain of the mammalian species, in particular the limbic systems and the corpus striatum.
Later he and his colleagues at MIT experimented with new technical approaches involving the use of enzymatic and radioactive tracer substances in the analysis of fiber connections in the brain.
According to his colleagues and family, Dr. Nauta remained particularly proud of the stain he developed-the Nauta Silver Impregnation Method-to trace degenerating nerve fibers. In the book, Neuroanatomical Tract-Tracing Methods, Professor Lennart Heimer wrote that the method and its various modifications "breathed new life into neuroanatomy and were fundamental to the subsequent development of the neurosciences in general."
When The Neurosciences Research Program awarded Dr. Nauta the F.O. Schmitt Medal and Prize in Neuroscience for 1983, it said that he "devised new experimental methods that... established systems neuroanatomy as a leading discipline in neuroscience... He more than any other has created the modern science of neuroanatomy."
Dr. Nauta was born in 1916 in Medan, Indonesia. He attended the University of Leyden in the Netherlands from 1934 to 1941, and received an MD degree in 1942 and a PhD in anatomy and neurophysiology in 1945 from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
During World War II, from 1940 until the time the Netherlands was liberated by the Allies in 1945, Dr. Nauta and his wife, Ellie, hid a teenage Jewish girl while living in a one and one-half room apoartment with their own children.
Dr. Nauta taught at the University of Utrecht from 1941 to 1946, the University of Leyden in 1946-47, and the University of Zurich in Switzerland from 1947 to 1951. From 1951 to 1964 he was a neurophysiologist in the Division of Neuropsychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, DC.
He was a professor in the Anatomy Department at the University of Maryland from 1955 to 1964, when he came to MIT as a professor of neuroanatomy in what was then the Department of Psychology, now called the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. He also was appointed a neuroanatomist on the staff of the McLean Hospital in Belmont in 1975. Dr. Nauta retired from MIT in 1986.
Dr. Nauta was the author or co-author of more that 100 papers for professional journals and books, the most recent in 1993.
He was a member of several honorary and professional societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Society for Neuroscience, which he served as president, the American Association of Anatomists and the American Neurological Association.
He was the recipient of many honors and honorary degrees, among them the 1964 American Philosophical Society's Karl Spencer Lashley Award for Research in Neurobiology; the 1973 Henry Gray Award of the American Association of Anatomists; and the 1975 Distinguished Research Award of the American Neurological Association.
In 1973, Dr. Nauta's colleagues at MIT bestowed on him the title of Institute Professor, an honor of special distinction that recognized his excellence as a teacher as well as his scholarly accomplishments.
On April 25, Dr. Nauta was to have received a special award in neurosciences from the National Academy of Sciences in a ceremony in Washington, DC. His award was for "extraordinary contributions to progress in the field of neuroscience and for development of a powerful method for determining connectivity among specific brain sites and thus establishing now classical circuits in the limbic system."
Private services were held on Monday, March 28.
Besides his wife, Ellie (Plaat) Nauta, he is survived by two daughters, Tjalda Belastock of Newton and Janneke Bogyo of Lewiston, NY; and a son, Haring J. Nauta of Galveston, TX.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 27).