Ramón Y Cajal, Santiago

The Five Senses and Beyond: The Encyclopedia of Perception - Jennifer L. Hellier 2017

Ramón Y Cajal, Santiago

Often referred to as Ramón y Cajal or just Cajal, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852—1934) was a Spanish histologist, neuroscientist, and pathologist, who investigated the morphology (shape) of brain cells by using a simple light microscope. He is most famous for his remarkable detailed drawings of these microscopic structures, particularly of their delicate arborizations (fine-branching structures of dendrites and/or axons) and their connections in the central nervous system. Although he used just a light microscope, his artistic drawings and anatomical analyses have proven correct in many brain regions. For his research and histological findings, Ramón y Cajal is considered to be the father of neuroscience. In fact, Ramón y Cajal’s detailed drawings are still used today to teach neuroscience and neuroanatomy to students.

Ramón y Cajal was born in Navarre, Spain, and was the son of Justo Ramón, a physician and anatomy professor, and Antonia Cajal. His last name contains both of his parents’ last names: Ramón y Cajal. Santiago was kicked out of many schools because of his rebellious behavior and disagreement with authority. In fact, at the age of 11 he was imprisoned for demolishing a neighbor’s gate with a homemade cannon. He was a natural artist and painter, but his father did not encourage Ramón y Cajal to develop these skills. Instead, his father made Ramón y Cajal an apprentice to a cobbler and a barber.

Eventually, Ramón y Cajal attended the University of Zaragoza School of Medicine, where his father taught. Ramón y Cajal graduated in 1873 and became a medical officer for the Spanish army where he completed a tour in Cuba from 1874 to 1875. Ramón y Cajal returned to school and received his PhD in medicine in 1877. Ultimately, he became an anatomy professor at the University of Valencia in 1883 and then at the University of Barcelona in 1887. Ramón y Cajal’s neuroscience research began while at the University of Barcelona where he learned of Camillo Golgi’s (1843—1926) silver nitrate histological technique. Here he used his natural artistic skills with Golgi’s stain and began his neuroanatomy research. Specifically, Ramón y Cajal studied and drew the central nervous systems of many animal species. During this time he identified dendritic spines as well as the axonal growth cone, which is the terminal end of an axon that seeks its synaptic target. Additionally, Ramón y Cajal was the pioneer in showing evidence for the neuron doctrine, which is the foundation of today’s neuroscience. One fundamental concept of the neuron doctrine states that the central nervous system is made up of individual cells and is not a continuous mass. Ramón y Cajal was able to draw these distinct cells and show how they connect to each other, meaning that the central nervous system is a contiguous system. For his findings and contribution to neuroscience, Ramón y Cajal received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906.

Jennifer L. Hellier

See also: Brain Anatomy; Neuropil; Olfactory Sensory Neurons

Further Reading

Ramón y Cajal, Santiago. (1999) [1897]. Advice for a young investigator (Neely Swanson and Larry W. Swanson, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.