“Cajal is considered the father of modern neuroscience, as important in his field as Charles Darwin or Louis Pasteur are in theirs,” says Roberta Smith at the New York Times.
However, outside of the neuroscience world, few know Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s name. His paintings of neurons and cells in the nervous system are not only accurate but absolutely beautiful.
Today, his paintings are shown in art museums. And his contributions to medicine and neuroscience are far too numerous to count. Cajal won the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, making him the first person of Spanish origin to win the Nobel Prize in science. He received the award with Camillo Golgi, an Italian physician who invented the staining technique Cajal used, “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system.”
But Cajal didn’t want to be a doctor. He wanted to be an artist. According to Susana Martinez-Conde at Scientific American, Cajal only enrolled in medical school in Zaragoza, Spain, because his father forced him to go to medical school.
But he also never gave up his passions. Cajal was not only an artist — he was a writer and a photographer. My English professor in college translated some of Cajal’s science fiction stories from Spanish to English, and the stories include a philosophical meditation on medicine and more.
This is the story of Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s life, passions, contributions to science, and his enduring legacy to the world of neuroscience today.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s childhood
In Recollections of my Life, Cajal attested to his father’s willpower as a self-made man who clawed his way out of poverty to become a doctor.
He said his father was so determined to not be poor that he became a barber to fund his way through high school. He started apprenticing with a surgeon in a town called Javierrelatre. His master recognized him as a particularly good assistant and trusted him with many tasks, leading to a passion for medicine. When Cajal’s father was 22, he asked his master for a salary to study, a nearly unheard of practice — and became a surgeon soon after. He became a doctor once he was married and had kids, and eventually became a professor of anatomy at the University of Zaragoza.
Cajal states that his father’s story is important to him because of the controlling way his father made Cajal a doctor.
Helmuth Steininger and Carolina Codina-Canet also state that Cajal wanted to become a painter, but his father was rather forceful in making him study medicine. Cajal was born on May 1, 1852, in northern Spain. As a child, he had very poor behavior. According to Cajal’s Memories of my Life, Cajal had to be transferred from numerous schools because teachers could not control him. He was arrested at the age of 11 after he destroyed a neighbor’s yard gate with a cannon he made.
His father was horrified at his behavior and decided Cajal needed more discipline in his life. Cajal loved art and he was a fantastic gymnast, but his father made him an apprentice in shoemaking and cutting hair. Unfortunately, trying to become a barber and shoemaker didn’t work out for Cajal either.
When he was 16, Cajal’s father took him to graveyards to make sketches of bones in the graveyard, trying to convince. His father’s persuasion worked. It was then that Cajal became interested in medicine. Cajal would graduate with a degree in medicine from the University of Zaragoza, where his father taught, in 1873, and then become a medic in the Spanish Army.
In 1874, Cajal moved to Cuba to fight in the Ten Years’ War of Independence. There, he suffered dysentery and malaria and almost died from malaria. He went home, and in 1875, he started working as a graduate assistant at the University of Zaragoza.
While working at the University of Zaragoza, Cajal moved up the career ladder very fast. In 1877, he received his Ph. D. in medicine and was promoted to being an acting assistant professor. He became the Director of the Anatomical Museum at the university, and in 1883, he moved to the University of Valencia, becoming the University of Valencia Faculty of Medicine’s anatomy professor. Early in his career, Cajal worked on the microbiology of cholera and the structure of epithelial cells and tissue.
According to NobelPrize.org, Cajal moved to Barcelona in 1887 to become a professor. There, he started using Italian scientist Camillo Golgi’s staining method for nerve cells. Golgi used silver nitrate and potassium dichromate to observe nerve cells and make them visible in a yellow background, in what Famous Scientists calls the Golgi method.
Cajal used the method to win the Nobel Prize. And not only did Cajal use the Golgi method, but he improved on it. At the time, the Golgi method could only see less than five percent of neurons. He stained a greater portion of neurons by using bird brains and mammal embryos, which had unmyelinated axons (less insulated axons not surrounded by fat). He also used greater concentrations of chemicals, leading to a larger portion of axons being stained.
In 1888, using his new staining method adapted from Golgi’s, Cajal saw many more neurons. He discovered that nerve cells were individual cells that touch each other, which is known today as the neuron doctrine. Neurons did communicate with each other, but they did so as separate entities, using small gaps known as synaptic clefts.
At the time, the notion that neurons were their own cells was very controversial. The most fervent opposition came from Camillo Golgi himself, who was a proponent of the reticular theory. The reticular theory was the dominant view of the time, and it believed the nervous system to be one big, physically connected network. While Golgi wasn’t the founder of the reticular theory, he popularized it.
Even once the two won the Nobel Prize in 1906, they still strongly disagreed. Golgi and Cajal gave speeches that directly contradicted each other, with Golgi defending the reticular theory and Cajal defending the neuron doctrine.
What helped Cajal’s findings stay relevant, even today, is the fact that he drew what he saw through the microscope. Every neuroscience textbook I’ve had includes some of Cajal’s drawings. He made drawings of nerve cells in the retina, hippocampal formation, and cerebellar cortex. In one drawing, he contrasted his theory with Golgi’s theory — Cajal’s was a theory of neurons was one of contiguity, while Golgi’s was one of continuity.
No one can say Golgi and Cajal weren’t passionate about science. But Cajal was right, and Golgi was wrong. The neuron doctrine was eventually proven in the 1950s after Cajal died.
“People regularly begin seminars with pictures of the drawings that Cajal made because what they’ve added fits right in with where Cajal thought it should be…What he did is still relevant today,”said Dr. Janet Dubinsky, a neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota.
Today, Cajal’s drawings are in museums and medical and science centers around the world. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) put some of Cajal’s original drawings into an exhibit to raise awareness for Cajal’s work, adapting his drawings into 3D. Other neuroscientists also made art inspired by Cajal. In the NIH video, Dr. Jeff Diamond, an NIH neuroscientist, said the paintings were shown to excite neuroscientists.
“For neuroscientists, seeing an original Cajal is an amazing thing,” Diamond said.
Cajal was a man who seemed to do it all, and although Golgi was wrong, Cajal couldn’t have made his discoveries without Golgi’s staining techniques. But what makes his work legendary in the world of neuroscience, even today, is Cajal’s art.
Even though Santiago Ramón y Cajal did not originally want to become a doctor, he became one of the most influential doctors of all time. But he never abandoned his art, as evidenced by his drawings. Interestingly enough, Cajal’s brother, Pedro Ramón y Cajal, also became a doctor, essentially also forced to be one by their father. Pedro would later become an accomplished pathologist and gynecologist, practicing for 55 years until his death at 96.
The father of Santiago Ramón y Cajal had his way with his sons, but Cajal realized that despite being pigeonholed into the profession, he could combine his passion for art with medicine. To me, inspires others to never give up on their passions as well.
Originally published on Frame of Reference on March 3, 2021.