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Walther Flemming, (born April 21, 1843, Sachsenberg, Mecklenburg [now in Germany]—died Aug. 4, 1905, Kiel, Ger.), German anatomist, a founder of the science of cytogenetics (the study of the cell’s hereditary material, the chromosomes). He was the first to observe and describe systematically the behaviour of chromosomes in the cell nucleus during normal cell division (mitosis).
After serving as a military physician during the Franco-German War, Flemming held positions at the University of Prague (1873–76) and at the University of Kiel (1876–1901). A pioneer in the use of newly discovered aniline dyes to visualize cell structures, he found (1879) that a certain class of dyes revealed a threadlike material in the nucleus. Applying these stains to cells killed at different stages of division, he prepared a series of slides that, upon microscopic examination, clearly established the sequence of changes occurring in the nucleus during cell division. He showed that the threads (later called chromosomes) shortened and seemed to split longitudinally into two halves, each half moving to opposite sides of the cell. He named the entire process mitosis and described it in his historic book Zell-substanz, Kern und Zelltheilung (1882; “Cell-Substance, Nucleus, and Cell-Division”). The implications of Flemming’s work for heredity were not fully appreciated until the recognition of Gregor Mendel’s principles of heredity 20 years later.