y Santiago Ramón Cajal Critical Essays

Introduction

y Cajal, Santiago Ramón 1852-1934

Spanish histologist, essayist, and autobiographer.

A seminal figure in the field of neuroanatomy, Ramón y Cajal is numbered among the world's finest scientists. For his isolation of the nerve cell, or neuron, as the fundamental unit of the nervous system Ramón y Cajal was awarded the 1906 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, an honor he shared with Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi. In addition to this groundbreaking achievement, Ramón y Cajal is recognized for his work relating to the structure of the brain and nervous system, the function of nerve impulses, the nature of vision, and the processes of neural degeneration and regeneration. He is likewise noted for his nonscientific writings, particularly his autobiography, Recuerdos de mi vida (Recollections of My Life).

Biographical Information

Ramón y Cajal was born in the village of Petilla de Aragon, Spain, on 1 May 1852, the son of Justo Ramón y Casasús, a barber and surgeon, and Antonia Cajal. A recalcitrant youth, Ramón y Cajal indulged his passion for drawing and neglected his studies. In time, his father persuaded him to study medicine. Ramón y Cajal was apprenticed to a barber, and later a cobbler, by his father, but continued to practice his art clandestinely. When he was somewhat older, Ramón y Cajal accompanied his father to a nearby churchyard where the two obtained bones for use in their study of anatomy. His interest in medicine piqued, he began to produce detailed sketches of the bones. At the age of sixteen, Ramón y Cajal embarked upon the formal study of medicine at the University of Zaragoza, graduating with a medical degree in 1873. His subsequent service as an army surgeon in Cuba was cut short when he contracted malaria and was returned to Spain. A long convalescence ensued, during which he earned a doctoral degree in medicine. From 1879 to 1883 Ramón y Cajal acted as director of the anatomical museum at the University of Zaragoza and began his work in cell biology. He accepted a position as professor of descriptive anatomy at the University of Valencia in 1883 and a professorship of histology at the University of Barcelona in 1887. He was named chair of histology at the University of Madrid in 1892.

In 1896 he produced his Manual de anatomia pathologica general and subsequently his Textura del sistema nervioso del hombre y de los vertebrados (New Ideas on the Structure of the Nervous System in Man and the Vertebrates) between 1899 and 1904. After years of relative neglect by the international scientific community, Ramón y Cajal's research on the anatomy of the nervous system was recognized in 1906 by the Nobel committee. Together with the Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi, who had developed a cell-staining process employed in research, Ramón y Cajal shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in that year. In 1913 and 1914, he published his two-volume Estudios sobre la degeneración y regeneración del sistema nervioso (Degeneration and Regeneration of the Nervous System). His reputation as an international authority on the anatomy and pathology of the nervous system long since secured, Ramón y Cajal was honored in 1920 by King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who commissioned the Instituto Cajal in Madrid. Upon its completion in 1922, Ramón y Cajal resigned his position at the University of Madrid to continue his work at the Instituto until his death on 18 October 1934.

Major Works

Containing 1,800 pages and 887 original illustrations, Textura del sistema nervioso del hombre y de los vertebrados is Ramón y Cajal's principal work of neurohistology. The text offers considerable support for modern neuron theory, which describes the nervous system as a complex network of discrete nerve fibers separated by tiny gaps, or synapses. For his Estudios sobre la degeneración y regeneración del sistema nervioso Ramón y Cajal developed a new technique for staining neuroglia, the delicate connective tissue of the nervous system. This allowed him to classify several new types of cells and to examine the problem of regenerating damaged nervous tissue. He also produced a monograph on the procedures of science, Reglas y consejos sobre investigación biológia (Precepts and Counsels on Scientific Investigation). Among his nonscientific works, Ramón y Cajal published a notable autobiography, Recuerdos de mi vida, as well as a collection of anecdotes and aphorisms entitled Charlas de café.

Critical Reception

Since rising from relative obscurity following the recognition of his work by the Nobel Prize committee in 1906, Ramón y Cajal has been acknowledged as a principal figure in the field of neuroscience. The complete publication of Textura del sistema nervioso del hombre y de los vertebrados in 1904 did much to overturn the then-prevalent conception of the nervous system as a single, conjoined mass rather than as a system of differentiated cells. The research documented in his Estudios sobre la degeneración y regeneración del sistema nervioso has proved vital to the medical treatment of tumors and repair of severed nerve tissue. At the end of the twentieth century only a small portion of Ramón y Cajal's theoretical work is still disputed among neuroscientists, while his enduring contribution to science and medicine as the progenitor of modern neurobiology remains unquestioned.