Santiago Ramón y Cajal

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Santiago Ramón y Cajal


Spanish Histologist

Putting to use an interest in art that he had displayed earlier in life, Santiago Ramón y Cajal developed a method for staining individual nerve cells that improved on that developed by Italian scientist Camillo Golgi (1843-1926). For his advances in histology, a field of anatomy concerned with tissue structures and processes, Ramón y Cajal received the 1906 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Born on May 1, 1852, in a remote country village in Spain, Ramón y Cajal was the son of Justo Ramón y Casasús, a barber-surgeon, and Antonia Cajal. Despite the father's lack of money or training, he was an individual of extraordinarily strong will who managed to rise above his circumstances, obtain a medical degree, and become a professor of anatomy.

The young Ramón y Cajal was equally strong-willed, and determined to become an artist rather than a doctor, as his father intended him to be. Ultimately the father got his way, enrolling 16-year-old Ramón y Cajal at the University of Zaragoza. Five years later, in 1873, the young man earned an undergraduate degree in medicine. Some time thereafter, he joined the army and served a year as an infantry surgeon in Cuba, where he contracted malaria. This led to his discharge, and while he was still recovering in 1879, he passed the examinations for his doctorate in medicine. During the following year, he married Silveria Garcia, with whom he would have three daughters and three sons.

In the end, Ramón y Cajal found something between his father's ambition for him, and his own plan of becoming an artist: a career in anatomical research, which perhaps called to mind the anatomical studies made by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and other artists. Working initially with a discarded microscope at the University of Zaragoza, Ramón y Cajal gradually gained recognition and prestige, rising through a series of positions. In 1892 he assumed the chair of histology and pathologic anatomy at the University of Madrid, a post he would retain for three decades.

During this period, Ramón y Cajal conducted his Nobel-winning research, refining Golgi's method of staining tissue samples and thereby isolating the neuron as the nervous system's basic component. He also distinguished the neuron from other types of cells in the body, and made discoveries that supported the neuron theory. At that time, most scientists studying the nervous system were "reticularists" who maintained—incorrectly, as it turned out—that the nervous system was continuous and interconnected.

Ramón y Cajal, by contrast, asserted that the boundless networks of the nervous system ultimately terminate in "buttons" that never actually touch the nervous cells. This proposition, which in fact was correct, led to a fierce debate with Golgi. When the Nobel Committee awarded its 1906 Prize in physiology or medicine, Ramón y Cajal and Golgi were co-recipients, despite the fact that their methods and conclusions diverged widely.

Ramón y Cajal also studied tissues of the ear, eye, and even brain, and was interested in the regeneration of nerve tissues and fibers. Furthermore, he developed his own photographic process for the reproduction of his intricate histological drawings. In 1920 Spain's King Alfonso XIII commissioned the building of the Insituto Cajal, a leading histological research center in Barcelona. Ramón y Cajal worked there from 1922 until his death in Madrid on October 18, 1934.


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Santiago Ramón y Cajal

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