On Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s 162nd Birthday

Benjamin Ehrlich, today’s guest blogger, studies the life and work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. His translations from Charlas de café have appeared in New England Review.

The study of the brain is receiving more attention than ever from the general public, and yet “the father of modern neuroscience” remains largely under-recognized. We owe our basic knowledge of what many consider the most complex object in the known universe to a man named Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), born on this date in 1852.

Ramón y Cajal spent his life investigating nearly every part of the nervous system in numerous species, using old-fashioned microscopes and a series of chemical staining techniques. Contrary to the paradigmatic belief at the time, the Spanish histologist found that the nervous system (including the brain) is composed of distinctly individual cells (later termed neurons) that must communicate across nearly imperceptible gaps (later termed synapses). This became the basis for the neuron theory, disproving the reticular theory, which claimed the existence inside the brain of a continuous network formed by the fibers fused together.

"A neuron with a short axon in the cerebral cortex. Golgi Method." Figure 10 from Ramon y Cajal's Histologie du système nerveux de l'homme & des vertébrés. Copyright is owned by the family of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

“A neuron with a short axon in the cerebral cortex. Golgi Method.” Figure 10 from Ramon y Cajal’s Histologie du système nerveux de l’homme & des vertébrés (1909–1911). Copyright is owned by the family of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

In 1888, his “pinnacle year,” the first evidence of the existence of cells in the nervous system came from the cerebellum of a baby chicken (raised in the garden behind the laboratory in his home), in which he observed some infinitely small bodies that did not physically touch each other. Ramón y Cajal started his own scientific journal, the Revista trimestral de histología normal y patológica, in which he published his new papers. The first issue was released on his birthday.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born in Petilla de Aragón, a poor rural village in the mountains of northern Spain, with dirt roads and fewer than a hundred stone houses.1 His autobiography (Recollections of My Life, 1917) is in the collection of the New York Academy of Medicine Library, along with editions of his scientific masterpiece (Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates, 1904), his final testament to the neuron theory (Neuron Theory or Reticular Theory?, 1933, translated in 1954) and his guidebook for biological researchers (Advice for a Young Investigator, 1987). Spanish titles include a collection of aphorisms and meditations (Charlas de café, or Café Chats, 1921) and a detailed account of old age (El mundo visto a los ochenta años, or The World as Seen By an Eighty-Year-Old, 1932). Ramón y Cajal describes the brain as a living scene, as he watched neurons develop throughout their dramatic course. Let us celebrate his life and work, which humanize the study of the brain.

1. Calvo Roy, Antonio. Cajal: Triunfar a toda costa. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1999.

What Things are Good and Holesome for the Braine

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

It’s Brain Awareness Week, a week-long effort to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. Which got us thinking: What kind of advice did people get about taking care of their brains hundreds of years before the advent of brain imaging?

A home remedy guide from our collection provides one answer. Like many tomes of its day, the book has a long and descriptive title: A Rich Store-House or Treasury for the Diseased: Wherein, are Many Approued Medicines for Diuers and Sundry Diseases, Which Haue Been Long Hidden, and not Come to Light Before This Time; Now Set Foorth for the Great Benefit and Comfort of the Poorer Sort of People That are not of Abillitie to Go to the Physitions.

How-to guides were very common and often reprinted during the Renaissance.1 A Rich Store-House is no exception; our library houses the first edition from 1596 (shown here), the fifth edition from 1612, and the eighth and final edition from 1650. A Rich Store-House is likely modeled after the work recognized as the first home remedy guide, Thesaurus Pauperum, a guide to medical treatments published in the 13th century written by Petrus Hispanus, or Peter of Spain, who went on to become Pope John XXI.2

So what does A Rich Store-House have to say about the brain? It offers two lists, “A Rule to knowe what things are good and holesome for the Braine” and “These Thinges are ill for the Braine.” Some of the items, like washing hands often, walking, sleeping, and eating and drinking in moderation, are still considered wise advice today. Others, like not listening to much music or singing or not eating onions and garlic, have not aged quite as well.


1. Katz, W. A., & Katz, B. (1998). Cuneiform to Computer: A History of Reference Sources (Google eBook) (p. 415). Scarecrow Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=Q0e58w8n88MC&pgis=1

2. Geshwind, M. (1997). A rich storehouse of medicines for diverse and sundry diseases, an Elizabethan “Treasurie for the poorer sort of people”. Journal of the History of Dentistry, 45(1), 17–22.

Brain Awareness Week

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

Ambroise Paré, The brain and nerves of the head and neck, p134, Les Oeuvres

Ambroise ParéThe brain and nerves of the head and neck, p134, Les Oeuvres

This week is Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to celebrate the brain and increase awareness of brain research. Treating the brain has a long history; trepanning, or trepanation, is one of the oldest known surgical procedures.

The brain featured in today’s post comes from Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré, currently being treated in our conservation laboratory. The work was the culmination of the 16th century French barber-surgeon’s long and successful career, which saw him become royal surgeon for a number of French kings.

Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré was first published in 1575, and was subsequently expanded in multiple new editions. It was groundbreaking on a number of levels, written in the vernacular French, rather than Latin, it included not only anatomical depictions and descriptions of procedures, but illustrations of the instruments used in surgery, many of which Paré had modified or developed himself.