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.