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.)