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Founder of physiology studies in the Balkans and the pioneer of research on hypothermia, Jean Giaja (Ivan Djaja) was born in 1884 in L’Havre. Giaja gained his PhD at the Sorbonne in 1909. In 1910 he established the first Chair of Physiology in the Balkans and organized the first Serbian Institute for Physiology at the School of Philosophy of the University of Belgrade. His most notable papers were in the field of thermoregulation and bioenergetics. Giaja became member of the Serbian and Croatian academies of science and doctor honoris causa of Sorbonne. In 1952 for the seminal work on the behaviour of deep cooled warm blooded animals he became associate member of the National Medical Academy in Paris. In 1955 the French Academy of Sciences elected him as associate member in place of deceased Sir Alexander Fleming. Giaja died 1957 in Belgrade during a congress held in his honour (an In memoriam was published in Nature).

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Early Years, 1884-1906

Jean Giaja (Ivan Djaja) was born on July 21st, 1884 in L’Havre, Normandy. His father, Božidar, was a naval captain from Dubrovnik, and his mother, Delphine Depoa, was French. As a six-year-old boy, Giaja moved with his family to Serbia where he finished primary and high school. Just after graduation in 1902, his family transferred him to France, where he spent a year at the infamous Lycée Corneille in the classe de philosophie, learning from teachers including the famous philosopher Alain (Émile Chartier). In 1903, he enrolled at the Sorbonne with Professor Albert Dastre, who was one of the youngest students of Claude Bernard and a follower of that great French physiologist and experimentalist. During his studies, Giaja also spent some time working with Paul van Tieghem at the National Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. He graduated in natural sciences in 1905. His first steps in research were taken in 1906 with Professor Yves Delage at the Marine Station in Roscoff.

Middle years: 1909-1939

Giaja earned his PhD on July 23, 1909 after defending his thesis, “Study on ferments of glycosides and carbohydrates in mollusks and crustaceans”, at the Sorbonne. A year later, he was invited to become a young assistant professor of physiology at the School of Philosophy of the University of Belgrade, where he established the first Chair in Physiology in the Balkans and organized the first Serbian Institute for Physiology. He led this Institute for more than 40 years.

In 1912, he published his first monograph, entitled “Ferments and Physiology”, for which he received an award from the Serbian Royal Academy of Sciences. Giaja spent the Word War (WW) I confined in Austria. Upon his return to Serbia in 1919, he continued working in the restored Institute for Physiology, where he taught Physiology and Physiological Chemistry as an associate professor. He was promoted to a full professorship in 1921, and in 1923, he published his textbook “Fundamentals of Physiology”, the first of its kind in the region. In 1921, Giaja entered the Academy of Natural Sciences (Serbian Royal Academy) and became a full member in 1932. Soon afterwards, he became an associate member of the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb. During that period, he actively took part in the project of building the Oceanographic Institute in Split (Spalato), which was supported by both Academies.

Late years: 1941-1957

Giaja was awarded the Pourat (1940) and Montyon (1946) prizes by the Paris Academy of Science for his studies on hypothermia and thermoregulation. WWII brought a new interruption of his work, by way of voluntary pension and imprisonment. After the war, in 1945 Giaja returned to research and was elected as the head of Institute for Physiology.

For the seminal work of his Belgrade group on the behavior of deep cooled warm-blooded animals in 1952, he was elected an associate member of the Section for biological, physiological and chemical sciences of the National Medical Academy in Paris. Two years later, he received the title of doctor honoris causa at the Sorbonne. In 1955, the French Academy of Sciences elected him an associate member in place of the deceased Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.

Giaja devoted a large part of his professional life to the popularization of science, as well as to the development of arts and culture in general. He was one of the founders of public universities. He wrote philosophical books as well as books for general public; even for children. He often wrote for the newspaper “Politika”, which considered him their first foreign correspondent. His last article, entitled “For the scientific youth”, was published in “Politika” on the eve of his death in 1957. An excellent lecturer and teacher, professor Giaja knew how to gather, stimulate and inspire an elite cadre of young people, physiologists, biologists, medics, and veterinarians. In 1934, he was elected the rector of the University of Belgrade. He enjoyed a worldwide reputation from his scientific papers in thermoregulation and bioenergetics, which led to the announcement of the “Belgrade School of Physiology” (A.U. Smith, 1960).

On October 1st, 1957, participants of the 15th International Congress of Medicine and Military Pharmacy in Belgrade received sad news: Professor Jean Giaja, the chair of the symposium on hypothermia organized in his honor, the man who devoted his whole productive life as a scientist to physiology and hypothermia and who was also a pioneer of these disciplines, had just died on his way to the venue. In that same year, he had published five papers; over his entire career he had written approximately 200 scientific papers and many other publications.

Andjus PR, Stojilkovic SS, Cvijic G. Ivan Djaja (Jean Giaja) and the Belgrade School of Physiology. Physiol Res. 2011;60 Suppl 1:S1-13. Epub 2011 Jul 19. [link]