Ramon y Cajal, Santiago 1852-1934

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RAMON y CAJAL, Santiago 1852-1934

PERSONAL: Born March 1, 1852, in Aragon, Spain; died October 18, 1934 in Madrid, Spain; son of a surgeon and professor; married Silverìa Fayúans Garcia, 1879; children: three daughters, three sons. Education: University of Zaragoza, medical degree, 1873; University of Madrid, medical degree, 1879. Hobbies and other interests: Photography, drawing, philosophy, gymnastics, chess.

CAREER: Army doctor, 1873; School of Anatomy in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Zaragoza, 1875; Zaragoza Museum, director, 1879; Valencia University, professor, 1883; University of Barcelona, professor, 1887; University of Madrid, chairperson, 1892-1922. Military service: Spanish Army Medical Service, 1874-75.

MEMBER: Physical-Medical Society of Wurzburg, Medical Society of Berlin, Society of Medical Sciences of Lisbon, Society of Biology of Paris, National Medical Academy of Lima, Conimbricensis Instituti Societas, Italian Psychiatric Society, member of honor, Medical Society of Ghent, Academy of Medicine, Paris (associate member, 1906), Swedish Academy of Sciences.

AWARDS, HONORS: Fauvelle Prize, Society of the Biology of Paris, 1896; Moscow Prize, International Congress of Medicine, 1900; Helmholtz Medal, German Royal Academy of Sciences, 1905; Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (with Camillo Golgi), 1906, for work on the structure of the nervous system; Sorbonne, honorary doctorate, 1924.


Les nouvelles Idées sur la Fine Anatomie des CentresNerveux, (title means "New Ideas on the Fine Anatomy of the Nerve Centers"), 1894.

Die Retina der Wirbeltheire, (title means "The Retina of Vertebrates"), 1894.

Manual de histologia normal y Técnica Microgr (title means "Manual of Normal Histology and Micrographic Technique"), 1889.

The Structure of the Retina, translated by S. A. Thorpe and M. Glickstein, C. C. Thomas, 1972.

(Javier DeFelipe and Edward G. Jones, editors), Cajal on the Cerebral Cortex: An Annotated Translation of the Complete Writings, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1988.

Recuerdos de mi vida (title means "Recollections of My Life"), translated by E. H. Craigie and J. Cano, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1989.

Cajal's Degeneration and Regeneration of the NervousSystem, translated by Raoul M. May, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Histology of the Nervous System, translated by Neely Swanson and Larry W. Swanson, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Advice for a Young Investigator, translated by Neely Swanson and Larry W. Swanson, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1999.

Texture of the Nervous System of Man and the Vertebrates, two volumes, translated by Pedro Pasik and Tauba Pasik, Springer (New York, NY), 1999-2000.

Vacation Stories, translated by Laura Otis, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 2001.

Also author of Charlas de Café (title means "Café Conversation"); and El Mundo Visto a Los Ochenta Años (title means "The World Seen at Eighty Years"). The author's work has been translated into numerous languages, and he has published more than 100 scholarly articles in French and Spanish periodicals.

SIDELIGHTS: Considered a founding father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramon y Cajal was Spain's first Nobel laureate. He won the prize in 1906 for his theory that the nervous system was made up of individual cells, later termed neurons.

As a teenager, Ramon y Cajal was apprenticed to first a cobbler and then a barber. However, Ramon y Cajal had other plans; already he had developed a passion for drawing, and decided to become an artist. Instead, Ramon y Cajal graduated from the University of Zaragoza with a medical degree. After serving a short stint in Cuba as an army medical officer, he returned home and accepted a teaching position at the University of Zaragoza.

During this time, he met and married his wife of more than fifty years, Silverìa Fayúlans Garcia, an uneducated but dedicated woman who remained by his side until her death in 1930. Historical reports vary, but together they had between six and eight children.

Ramon y Cajal began publishing his scientific works in 1880. Among his first studies were muscle fiber, but he shortly moved on to the nervous system, where his interests would remain throughout the remainder of his life. In 1887, while a professor of histology and pathological anatomy at the University of Madrid, Ramon y Cajal got his first look at material impregnated with Golgi staining. Golgi staining, discovered by the famous researcher Camillo Golgi, is a method used for staining nerve cells, fibers, and neuroglia. Staining impregnates a limited number of neurons at random and allows a clear visualization of a nerve cell body with all its processes in its entirety. This is commonplace in today's lab, but in 1887, the process was still in its infancy. Ramon y Cajal was fascinated by what he saw, and immediately began conducting research on the retina, the cerebellum, and the spinal cord using Golgi stain. His publications around this time center around his findings.

Ramon y Cajal took his findings to Berlin and the congress of the German Anatomical Society in an effort to convince them of the importance of his observations. It was there that he began to receive the recognition he deserved. Ramon y Cajal explained why he disagreed with Golgi, who supported the idea that the nervous system was made up of a network of continuous elements. Ramon y Cajal's studies led him to believe, correctly, that the nervous system is made up of billions of separate nerve cells, eventually given the name "neurons." Ramon y Cajal's conclusion is the basic principle of our modern understanding of the organization of the nervous system.

Ramon y Cajal's opus Texture of the Nervous System of Humans and Vertebrates was published in 1904 and made available internationally in 1911 as Histology of the Nervous System of Humans and Vertebrates. The book's text was enlightening in its day, and the author further enhanced the work by providing illustrations that continue to be reproduced in neuroscience textbooks. This title is the cornerstone of Ramon y Cajal's fame, the work in which he presents concrete evidence of his Neuron Doctrine. A Choice reviewer called the opus "every bit as important as those of Darwin, Watson and Crick, and Hodgkin, Huxley, and Katz."

Many neuroscientists would argue that Histology is Ramon y Cajal's greatest work. The Neuron Doctrine became so widely accepted that by 1950, it unquestioned. In his review for Trends in Neuroscience, R. W. Guillery wrote, "The Neuron Doctrine had done its work, we had acquired the habit of defending it, and there was absolutely no point in raising questions about it. When . . . the presence of axoaxonal and dendro-dendritic junctions was identified, and nerve cells were shown to be dye-coupled, these observations were subsumed into what remained of the Neuron Doctrine, and neuroscientists got on with the real work of defining the different units of neuronal function." In other words, Ramon y Cajal gave his followers a theory upon which to rely and build, without doubt or suspect. It was for his work involving the Neuron Doctrine that Ramon y Cajal, along with Golgi, won the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Another of Ramon y Cajal's treatises, Degeneration and Regeneration of the Nervous System, was valuable because of its contribution to the understanding of the development of the nervous system and its reaction to injury. In it, he defines the "Law of Dynamic Polarization," a concept still adhered to today. This law states that nerve cells are polarized, receive information on their bodies and dendrites, and conduct information through axons. Ramon y Cajal discovered another basic principle, this one having to do with the functioning of neural connections. In her review for Isis, Maria Trumpler asked, "In what way has Ramon y Cajal's work been inspirational? For its care, its close argumentation, for its illustrations, for the idea that one man of genius working alone can revolutionize a field?" Like Texture of the Nervous System, this title has been translated into numerous languages and continues to be reprinted.

In his autobiography, Recollections of My Life, which was published in installments from 1901 to 1917, the author describes his father's impatience for the young Ramon y Cajal's passion for art. So he drew in secret, and took up photography as a replacement for what he was not allowed to do except in private. Ramon y Cajal also explains how his name came to be on the village's "Index of Bad Companions." A rebellious youth, he was also resourceful and found ways to explore and widen his otherwise-staid world. Ramon y Cajal later taught himself German and translated his own papers into French. As Jennifer Altman of Nature wrote, "Against this background, his achievement in establishing so many concepts fundamental to modern neuroscience is all the more extraordinary."

While Ramon y Cajal published a number of other scientific works, but he tried his hand at literary writing as well, for which he is lesser known. Charlas de Café, which literally means "Café Conversation," is a collection of Ramon y Cajal's ideas and thoughts on love and women, old age, literature and art, friendship and hate, morals, opinions, war, politics, and virtually any other topic that might come up in conversation.

All told, Ramon y Cajal published more than 286 works in his lifetime. The last years of his life were spent running the Madrid-based institute that had been built in his honor. He died at the age of eighty-two on October 18, 1934.

Ramon y Cajal's will, handwritten just one month before he died, stated that his works should be preserved at his institute. Unfortunately, they were not maintained, but were relegated to the basement and later found among rubble. In Nature Xavier Bosch and Alison Abbott reported, "The collection is thought to comprise about 2,000 scientific drawings, 2,300 histological preparations, and 2,100 scientific and personal letters, as well as portraits, photographs, notebooks, laboratory materials, and personal objects. About a quarter of Ramon y Cajal's works are thought to have been lost."



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 93, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.


BioScience, Volume 50, Issue 2, Carol Brewer, "A Voice for the Nineteenth Century," p. 165.

Booklist, March 1, 1999, Gilbert Taylor, review of Advice for a Young Investigator, p. 1138.

Choice, October, 1972, review of The Structure of theRetina, p. 993; June, 1995, review of History of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates, p. 1621; November, 2001, review of Vacation Stories, p. 516.

Contemporary Psychology, July, 1990, review of Cajal on the Cortex: An Annotated Translation of the Complete Writings, p. 729.

Isis, September, 1994, Maria Trumpler, review of Cajal's Degeneration and Regeneration of the Nervous System, pp. 543-544.

Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, March, 2001, Alastair Compston, review of Texture of the Nervous System of Man and the Vertebrates: Volume 1, p. 422.

Journal of the American Medical Association, March 16, 1990, Frank R. Freemon, review of Recollections of My Life, p. 1570; February 14, 1996, Frank R. Freemon, review of Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates, p. 493.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2001, review of VacationStories, p. 540.

Nature, October 12, 1989, Sanford L. Palay, review of Cajal on the Cerebral Cortex, pp. 493-494, Jennifer Altman, review of Recollections of My Life, p. 494; April 16, 1992, J. Z. Young, review of Cajal's Degeneration and Regeneration of theNervous System, pp. 624-625; April 29, 1999, Pere Puigdomenech, review of Advice for a Young Investigator, pp. 764-765; November 18, 1999, Harvey J. Karten, review of Texture of the Nervous System of Man and the Vertebrates, pp. 234-236; January 25, 2001, Xavier Bosch and Alison Abbott, "The Brain in Spain," p. 451; July 5, 2001, Edward G. Jones, review of Texture of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates: Volume II, pp. 1920.

Publishers Weekly, April 23, 2001, review of VacationStories, p. 54.

Quarterly Review of Biology, March, 2000, Charles G. Gross, review of Advice for a Young Investigator, p. 40.

Science September, 1985, Peter M. Knudtson, "Painter of Neurons: Laboring in the Scientific Backwater of Nineteenth-Century Spain, Santiago Ramon y Cajal Illuminated the Pathways of the Brain Where Others Had Failed," pp. 66-72; August 3, 1990, Katherine Livingston, review of Recollections of My Life, pp. 571-572.

Trends in Neurosciences, April, 1996, R. W. Guillery, review of Histology of the Nervous System, pp. 156-157.


Nobel Prize Web site,http://www.nobel.se/ (March 21, 2002), Gunnar Grant, "How Golgi Shared the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Cajal."; "Santiago Ramon y Cajal Biography"; (April 20, 1998), Marina Bentivoglio, "Life and Discoveries of Santiago Ramon y Cajal."

University of Illinois Web site,http://www.uic.edu/ (March 21, 2002), "Dr. Santiago Roman y Cajal."

University of Zarazoga Web site,http://cajal.unizar.es/ (March 21, 2002), "Biografia de Cajal."*