y Santiago Ramón Cajal Essay - Critical Essays

Cajal, y Santiago Ramón


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.

Principal Works

Manual de anatomia pathologica general (nonfiction) 1896

Textura del sistema nervioso del hombre y de los vertebrados [New Ideas on the Structure of the Nervous System in Man and the Vertebrates] (nonfiction) 1899-1904

Estudios sobre la degeneración y regeneración del sistema nervioso. 2 vols. [Degeneration and Regeneration of the Nervous System] (nonfiction) 1913-1914

Reglas y consejos sobre investigación biológia [Precepts and Counsels on Scientific Investigation] (non-fiction) 1916

Charlas de café (aphorisms) 1922

Recuerdos de mi vida [Recollections of My Life] (autobiography) 1923

Cajal on the Cerebral Cortex: An Annotated Translation of the Complete Writings [edited by Javier DeFelipe and Edward G. Jones] (nonfiction) 1988


Raoul M. May (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: A review of Recuerdos de mi vida and Charlas de café, in ISIS, Vol. VIII, 1926, pp. 498-503.

[In the following review, May recounts Ramón y Cajal 's life and scientific accomplishments, then considers the aphorisms in Charlas de café.]

Among living biologists there is certainly no greater genius than S. Ramón y Cajal, the eminent Spanish histologist and neurologist. And were genius to be judged not only by the results achieved, but also by the difficulties overcome, Ramón y Cajal would stand preeminent among them all.

Ramón y Cajal began his scientific career at a time when Spain was almost totally unproductive of any original scientific investigation. Urged as much by patriotic zeal as by the feu sacré of research, he has succeeded, in the forty-five years since his first publication, in creating a great Spanish school of histology and neurology, in actively stimulating investigators in related fields of science, and in foreign countries, and in pointing a way to Spain, by his noble example, to a new era of scientific endeavour.

The son of a country physician, a man who had risen by his own efforts and knew the value of work, Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born in 1852, in Petilla de Aragón, in the province of Navarra. He was brought up in small towns in various provinces of Spain. As is the case with so many men of genius, his early years were passed in open opposition to the formal education of books and masters, and in close study of nature. This early took the form of a great love for pictorial art, for which he appears to have had great talent. His aesthetic tendencies were actively combatted, however, by his parents, who saw in them merely the expression of laziness, especially as the young Santiago was known wherever he went as the leader of all the boyish pranks of the neighborhood. These pranks, under the energetic guidance of their son, ran the gamut from the explosion of wooden canons to stone fights with the police. To curb these youthful outbursts, Dr. Ramón placed his son as apprentice, first to a barber, then to a shoemaker.

Synchronous with his exuberant energy, however, the young Santiago Ramón was experiencing a great fever of romanticism. Guided by his love for art, and by French and Spanish authors of the romantic era, he was an ardent worshipper of Chateaubriand, Hugo and Quevedo. It is with these masters, and largely outside of the standard education of the schools, that he grew up to adolescence.

His father constantly urged him to take up the profession of medicine, and to get rid of his artistic ideas. To incite him to work along medical lines, he began with his son the study of anatomy, and more especially that of osteology. To Santiago, with his artistic idiosyncracy, osteology was but another pictoric theme, a theme which, although it dealt with hard and dry realities, he espoused with far greater enthusiasm than the dialectics and metaphysic of his school masters. Here, so he says, working on dry bones in an attic, under the tutorship of his father, was laid the basis of all his future scientific activity.

Once he had finished with the secondary schools, the young man studied medicine in Zaragoza. There was at the time an almost absolute lack of laboratories in Spain, and medicine was merely a clinical study. Zaragoza, as one of the smaller medical schools, offered no particularly great advantages. Here, however, Ramón y Cajal made a profound study of gross anatomy, and soon became extremely competent in this science.

His medical studies completed, he had to serve his country in the army; he was accepted in the medical corps and, after a brief campaign in Spain, was sent to Cuba to serve in the war against the insurgents of 1874. There, under fearful sanitary conditions, he soon fell a victim to malaria, and was saved from death only through his extraordinary physique and resistance. He returned to Spain and, after his recovery, prepared himself for a professorship. Once more, however, disease laid a heavy hand on him, this time in the form of pulmonary tuberculosis. The extraordinary energy which he had stored up in his boy-hood and adolescence here again came to his rescue, and, because of his tremendous "élan vital," he triumphed a second time over disease. Having passed competitive examinations, he was appointed Professor of Descriptive Anatomy at the University of Valencia.

It was during his preparation for a professorship that he began to take an interest in microscopic anatomy and its technique; working always by himself, and pushed only by his own curiosity and enthusiasm, he founded a small laboratory of his own. Once a professor in Valencia, he began a series of investigations in histology which can be said to be the most brilliant of modern times. His maiden studies were on inflammation, nerve terminations, the structure of the cholera vibrio, that of stratified pavement epithelium, the crystalline lens, cartilage, bone, and muscle. He soon drifted over, however, to a study of various structures of the nervous system, and especially, at first, the retina. Using the newly discovered method of Golgi, which is specific for the nervous system, he modified it so that in his hands it gave results which no one had been able to obtain before him. We can say that no part of the nervous system of vertebrates has been left unstudied by Ramón y Cajal. Beginning with a beautiful comparative study of the retina, which culminated in his publication, in 1892, of "La rétine des vertébrés" in La Cellule, he...

(The entire section is 2311 words.)

William Carleton Gibson (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: "Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934)," in Annals of Medical History, Vol. VIII, No. 5, September, 1936, pp. 385-94.

[In the following essay, Gibson details Ramón y Cajal's life, work, and influence on the field of medical science.]

The ideal of science is to elucidate the dark mysteries and unknown forces which invest us, for the benefit of our descendants, and to make the world more agreeable and intelligible, while we ourselves are forgotten like the seed in the furrow.—CAJAL.

The beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century saw Helmholz, Ludwig, Virchow and Claude Bernard laying the...

(The entire section is 4740 words.)

Dorothy F. Cannon (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Summation and Appraisal—By Way of Epilogue," in Explorer of The Human Brain: The Life of Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), Henry Schuman, 1949, pp. 263-75.

[In the following excerpt, Cannon surveys Ramón y Cajal's scientific and literary work, and describes his character and influence.]

What then remains? Courage, and patience, and simplicity, and kindness, and, last of all, ideas remain; these are the things to lay hold of and live with.



That a man situated as Cajal was in a country where science...

(The entire section is 4352 words.)

Lloyd G. Stevenson (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "1906: Camillo Golgi (1844-1926), Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934)," in Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology 1901-1950, Henry Schuman, 1953, pp. 32-40.

[In the following excerpt, Stevenson offers a brief summary of Ramón y Cajal's life and his Nobel Prize-winning research in neurophysiology.]

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born May 1, 1852, In Petilla, an isolated village in the Spanish Pyrenees, where his father was "surgeon of the second class." The elder Ramón later extended his studies and in time became professor of anatomy at Zaragoza. The son's unfortunate early schooling, under tyrannical teachers, failed to reveal his gifts. It was followed...

(The entire section is 1273 words.)

J. Z. Young (review date 1992)

SOURCE: "Nervous Starts," in Nature, Vol. 356, No. 6370, April 16, 1992, pp. 624-5.

[In the following review, Young observes the significance of Ramóny Cajal's work to modern neuron theory.]

Those who probe the nervous system with electrodes probably seldom stop to consider the history of knowledge of the cells they are impaling. Yet it would help them to think about the problems that have arisen in the search for units of nervous activity. Since the days of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, most neuroscientists have depended on a rather simple picture of the neuron, with dendrites, cell body and axon as the essential unit. This has also been the model mostly used in...

(The entire section is 1080 words.)

Geoffrey Montgomery (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Dark Room," in Grand Street, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 223-40.

[In the following essay, Montgomery explores the impact of Ramón y Cajal's scientific research on the study of vision.]

1. Ayerbe, Spain—1860

Unlike the other boys at school, Santiago Ramón y Cajal had no fear of solitary confinement. The dark detention center, a basement room set below the town square, into which light slashed only through cracks in the room's single shuttered window, was a place for Cajal to think: a quiet room in which to concentrate on what outrages to commit tomorrow. Cajal was then eight or nine. His fellow delinquents, locked in the...

(The entire section is 5881 words.)

William R. Everdell (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "Santiago Ramón y Cajal: The Atoms of Brain, 1889," in The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought, The University of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 100-15.

[In the following essay, Everdell discusses Ramón y Cajal's formulation of neuron theory, suggesting that he may be 'the most important progenitor of twentieth-century neuroscience'.]

But when classicism says "man," it means reason and feeling. And when Romanticism says "man," it means passion and the senses. And when modernism says "man" it means the nerves.

—Hermann Bahr, The Overcoming of Naturalism: Sequel to "Critique of the...

(The entire section is 8563 words.)

Further Reading


Craigie, E. Horne, and William C. Gibson. The World of Ramón y Cajal: With Selections from His Nonscientific Writings. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1968, 295 p.

Contains a biography of Ramón y Cajal in the form of a travelogue and excerpts from his collection of aphorisms and sketches, Charlas de café, and other nonscientific works.

Ramón y Cajal, Santiago. "Recollections of My Life." Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society VIII, Parts I-II (1937): 3-638.

English translation of Ramón y Cajal's autobiography. Includes a list of Ramón y Cajal's publications, titles, decorations, and prizes....

(The entire section is 133 words.)