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Santiago Ramón y Cajal: The Father of Neuroscience

For bet­ter or worse, Spain has gen­er­al­ly been known more for its art than its sci­ence. His­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, the last 500 years have not been kind to Spain. The crude injec­tion of wealth from its colonies was spent main­ly on the long march of use­less Euro­pean reli­gious wars. Catholic mon­archs cared lit­tle for sci­en­tif­ic activ­i­ty that could threat­en their spir­i­tu­al­ly ordained author­i­ty and frag­ile grip on an already slip­pery polis. It was more tempt­ing to spend dis­cre­tionary funds on art and archi­tec­ture, with results that could be imme­di­ate­ly dis­cerned and asso­ci­at­ed with a patron. 

That being said, by the mid­dle of the 19thCen­tu­ry, even Spain was not immune to the siren song of indus­tri­al devel­op­ment and the under­ly­ing sci­en­tif­ic advance­ment that was gen­er­at­ing new wealth. It was into this world in tran­si­tion that San­ti­a­go Ramón y Cajal was born in 1852. The son of an anato­my instruc­tor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Zaragoza, San­ti­a­go had lit­tle inter­est in aca­d­e­mics and did not flour­ish dur­ing an appren­tice­ship as a cob­bler. His inter­est was art. Although clear­ly tal­ent­ed as an artist, his father con­tin­ued to push him towards med­i­cine. Even­tu­al­ly per­suad­ed, he earned his med­ical degree in Zaragoza and sub­se­quent­ly joined the Span­ish Army for a tour in Cuba. Like many of those deployed to Cuba dur­ing those years, he con­tract­ed both tuber­cu­lo­sis and malar­ia, dis­eases that would bur­den him for the rest of his life, but also inspire him to make great con­tri­bu­tions in the field of infec­tious dis­ease (espe­cial­ly cholera).

It was not infec­tious dis­ease how­ev­er, that would ele­vate Ramón y Cajal into the Pan­theon of med­ical sci­ence. He achieved this by build­ing a bridge between art and science…between the old Spain, and the emerg­ing Spain. It start­ed with his fas­ci­na­tion with his­tol­ogy, the study of tis­sue. More specif­i­cal­ly, he became fas­ci­nat­ed with brain tis­sue. With new tech­niques emerg­ing (many relat­ed to pho­to­graph­ic pro­cess­ing), tis­sue sam­ples could be stained in ways that allowed for the detailed analy­sis of neur­al path­ways. For the first time, inves­ti­ga­tors were able to see and draw con­clu­sions about the process­es of the brain that had pre­vi­ous­ly been utter­ly mys­te­ri­ous. How­ev­er, being able to apply stains and see neur­al path­ways through his micro­scope, was only one part of the equa­tion. In fact, many sci­en­tists could do this at the time. What made Ramón y Cajal’s con­tri­bu­tion so crit­i­cal was his skill as an artist. With a painter’s atten­tion to detail, he began the labo­ri­ous process of cat­a­loging this new world, pro­vid­ing blue­prints on paper that could final­ly be shared and ana­lyzed. By bring­ing art and sci­ence togeth­er, he intro­duced the world to the human mind. 

Among his many con­tri­bu­tions was his argu­ment that the neur­al net­work was not a set of wires. Rather it was a sequence of inde­pen­dent neu­rons that passed infor­ma­tion along a chain. Although this approach (known as neur­al the­o­ry) seems evi­dent to us today, it was a rad­i­cal depar­ture from the wide­ly accept­ed retic­u­lar the­o­ry that viewed the ner­vous sys­tem as a sol­id net­work. This foun­da­tion­al dis­cov­ery con­tributed great­ly to the recog­ni­tion of Ramón y Cajal as the father of mod­ern neu­ro­science. Fur­ther­more, he became the first Spaniard to win a Noble Prize for Science. 

Today, his glob­al lega­cy remains strong. In Spain, vis­i­tors can vis­it his home in the beau­ti­ful pueblo of Petil­la de Aragon, as well as attend lec­tures at the Ramón y Cajal Insti­tute in Madrid. Mod­ern Spain, pro­pelled by his lega­cy, has become a rec­og­nized world leader in neu­ro­science. I am espe­cial­ly indebt­ed to this great sci­en­tist for the influ­ence that he has allowed me to per­son­al­ly wit­ness. As you may know, my wife is a Span­ish neu­rol­o­gist with a fam­i­ly tra­di­tion of attend­ing the same med­ical school in Zaragoza where Ramón y Cajal stud­ied. His influ­ence and lega­cy played a large role in my wife’s pro­fes­sion­al choic­es and there­fore has touched (and often saved) the lives of many peo­ple in our community. 

NOTE: For a beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion of his draw­ings, I high­ly rec­om­mend the recent­ly pub­lished The Beau­ti­ful Brain, reviewed here by The New York Times.

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Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1899. Instituto Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Madrid, Spain