Santiago Ramón y Cajal

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Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Ramón y Cajal in 1899
Santiago Ramón y Cajal

(1852-05-01)1 May 1852
Died17 October 1934(1934-10-17) (aged 82)
Madrid, Spain
  • neuroscientist
  • pathologist
  • histologist
Known forFathering modern neuroscience
Discovery of the neuron
Cajal body
Cajal–Retzius cell
Interstitial cell of Cajal
Neuron doctrine
Growth cone
Dendritic spine
Long-term potentiation
Mossy fiber
Neurotrophic theory
Axo-axonic synapse
Pioneer axon
Pyramidal cell
Radial glial cell
Retinal ganglion cell
Trisynaptic circuit
Visual map theory
HeightHeight: 5'6(1934)
AwardsNobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1906)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal signature.png

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (Spanish: [sanˈtjaɣo raˈmon i kaˈxal]; 1 May 1852 – 17 October 1934)[1][2] was a Spanish neuroscientist, pathologist, and histologist specializing in neuroanatomy and the central nervous system. He and Camillo Golgi received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906.[3] Ramón y Cajal was the first person of Spanish origin to win a scientific Nobel Prize. His original investigations of the microscopic structure of the brain made him a pioneer of modern neuroscience.

Hundreds of his drawings illustrating the arborizations ("tree growing") of brain cells are still in use, since the mid-20th century, for educational and training purposes.[4]


Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born 1 May 1852 in the town of Petilla de Aragón, Navarre, Spain.[1] As a child he was transferred many times from one school to another because of behavior that was declared poor, rebellious, and showing an anti-authoritarian attitude. An extreme example of his precociousness and rebelliousness at the age of eleven is his 1863 imprisonment for destroying his neighbor's yard gate with a homemade cannon.[5] He was a keen painter, artist, and gymnast, but his father neither appreciated nor encouraged these abilities, even though these artistic talents would contribute to his success later in life.[2] His father apprenticed him to a shoemaker and barber, to "try and give his son much-needed discipline and stability."[2]

Ramón y Cajal as a young captain in the Ten Years' War in Cuba, 1874.

Over the summer of 1868, his father took him to graveyards to find human remains for anatomical study. Early sketches of bones moved him to pursue medical studies.[6]:207 Ramón y Cajal attended the medical school of the University of Zaragoza, where his father worked as an anatomy teacher. He graduated in 1873, aged 21, and then served as a medical officer in the Spanish Army. He took part in an expedition to Cuba in 1874–75, where he contracted malaria and tuberculosis.[7] To aid his recovery, Ramón y Cajal spent time in the spa-town Panticosa in the Pyrenees mountain range.[citation needed]

After returning to Spain, he received his doctorate in medicine in Madrid in 1877. Two years later, he became the director of the Zaragoza Museum, and he married Silveria Fañanás García, with whom he had seven daughters and five sons. Ramón y Cajal worked at the University of Zaragoza until 1883, when he was awarded the position of anatomy professor of the University of Valencia.[7][8] His early work at these two universities focused on the pathology of inflammation, the microbiology of cholera, and the structure of epithelial cells and tissues.[citation needed]

In 1887 Ramón y Cajal moved to Barcelona for a professorship.[7] There he first learned about Golgi's method, a cell staining method which uses potassium dichromate and silver nitrate to (randomly) stain a few neurons a dark black color, while leaving the surrounding cells transparent. This method, which he improved, was central to his work, allowing him to turn his attention to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), in which neurons are so densely intertwined that standard microscopic inspection would be nearly impossible. During this period he made extensive detailed drawings of neural material, covering many species and most major regions of the brain.[9]

In 1892, he became professor at Madrid.[7] In 1899 he became director of the Instituto Nacional de Higiene – translated as National Institute of Hygiene , and in 1922 founder of the Laboratorio de Investigaciones Biológicas – translated as the Laboratory of Biological Investigations , later renamed to the Instituto Cajal, or Cajal Institute.[7]

He died in Madrid on October 17, 1934, at the age of 82,[10] continuing to work even on his deathbed.[7][11]

Political and religious views[edit]

In 1877, the 25-year-old Ramón y Cajal joined a Masonic lodge.[12]:156 John Brande Trend wrote in 1965 that Ramón y Cajal "was a liberal in politics, an evolutionist in philosophy, an agnostic in religion".[13]

Nonetheless, Ramón y Cajal used the term soul "without any shame".[14] He was said to later have regretted having left organized religion,[12]:343 Ultimately, he became convinced of a belief in God as a creator, as stated during his first lecture before the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences.[15][16]

Discoveries and theories[edit]

Ramón y Cajal in his laboratory.

Ramón y Cajal made several major contributions to neuroanatomy.[6] He discovered the axonal growth cone, and demonstrated experimentally that the relationship between nerve cells was not continuous, or a single system as per then extant reticular theory, but rather contiguous;[6] there were gaps between neurons. This provided definitive evidence for what Heinrich Waldeyer would name "neuron theory", now widely considered the foundation of modern neuroscience.[6] He is also considered by some to be the first "neuroscientist" since in 1894 he stated to the Royal Society of London: “The ability of neurons to grow in an adult and their power to create new connections can explain learning.” This statement is considered to be the origin of the synaptic theory of memory.[17]

He was an advocate of the existence of dendritic spines, although he did not recognize them as the site of contact from presynaptic cells. He was a proponent of polarization of nerve cell function and his student, Rafael Lorente de Nó, would continue this study of input-output systems into cable theory and some of the earliest circuit analysis of neural structures.[18]

By producing excellent depictions of neural structures and their connectivity and providing detailed descriptions of cell types he discovered a new type of cell, which was subsequently named after him, the interstitial cell of Cajal (ICC).[19] This cell is found interleaved among neurons embedded within the smooth muscles lining the gut, serving as the generator and pacemaker of the slow waves of contraction which move material along the gastrointestinal tract, mediating neurotransmission from motor neurons to smooth muscle cells.

In his 1894 Croonian Lecture, Ramón y Cajal suggested (in an extended metaphor) that cortical pyramidal cells may become more elaborate with time, as a tree grows and extends its branches.[citation needed]

He devoted a considerable amount of time studying French which he used to help his wife during labor and parapsychological phenomena.[citation needed] A book he had written on these topics was lost during the Spanish Civil War.[citation needed]


Bust of Santiago Ramón y Cajal in Burgos, 2014.

Ramón y Cajal received many prizes, distinctions, and societal memberships during his scientific career, including honorary doctorates in medicine from Cambridge University and Würzburg University and an honorary doctorate in philosophy from Clark University.[7] The most famous distinction he was awarded was the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906, together with the Italian scientist Camillo Golgi "in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system".[7] This caused some controversy because Golgi, a staunch supporter of reticular theory, disagreed with Ramón y Cajal in his view of the neuron doctrine.[20] Even before Ramón y Cajal's work, Norwegian scientist Fridtjof Nansen established the contiguous nature of nerve cells in his study of certain marine life, which Ramón y Cajal failed to cite.[21]

In society and culture[edit]

The asteroid 117413 Ramonycajal has been named in his honor.

In 2014, the National Institutes of Health exhibited original Ramón y Cajal drawings in its Neuroscience Research Center.[22]

Every year more than two hundred four-year postdoctoral fellowships by the Ministry of Science of Spain are awarded to middle career scholars from different fields of knowledge are called "Ayudas a contratos Ramon y Cajal" to honor his memory.

An exhibition called The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal travelled through the US beginning 2017 at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis ending April 2019 at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.[23]

A short documentary by REDES is available on YouTube.[24] Spanish public television channel RTVE screened a biopic series to commemorate his life in 2019.[25]


He published more than 100 scientific works and articles in Spanish, French and German. Among his works were:[7]

  • Rules and advice on scientific investigation
  • Histology
  • Degeneration and regeneration of the nervous system
  • Manual of normal histology and micrographic technique
  • Elements of histology

A list of his books includes:

In 1905, he published five science-fiction stories called "Vacation Stories" under the pen name "Dr. Bacteria".[26][citation needed]

Gallery of drawings[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Santiago Ramón y Cajal: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1906". Retrieved 2020-06-25.
  2. ^ a b c A Mind for Numbers. Tarcher Penguin. 2014. p. 193. ISBN 978-0-399-16524-5.
  3. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1906".
  4. ^ "History of Neuroscience". Society for Neuroscience. Archived from the original on 2008-05-15. Retrieved 2008-10-09.
  5. ^ Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Recuerdos de mi Vida Volume I, Chapter X, Madrid Imprenta y Librería de N. Moya, Madrid 1917, online at Instituto Cervantes (Spanish)
  6. ^ a b c d Finger, Stanley (2000). "Chapter 13: Santiago Ramón y Cajal. From nerve nets to neuron doctrine". Minds behind the brain: A history of the pioneers and their discoveries. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 197–216. ISBN 0-19-508571-X.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Santiago Ramón y Cajal on Edit this at Wikidata, accessed 29 April 2020
  8. ^ "Santiago Ramón y Cajal | Spanish histologist". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-06-25.
  9. ^ The beautiful brain : the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Newman, Eric A.,, Araque, Alfonso,, Dubinsky, Janet M.,, Swanson, Larry W.,, King, Lyndel Saunders,, Himmel, Eric. New York. 17 January 2017. ISBN 978-1-4197-2227-1. OCLC 938991305.CS1 maint: others (link)
  10. ^ Sherrington, C. S. (1935). "Santiago Ramón y Cajal. 1852-1934". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 1 (4): 424–441. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1935.0007.
  11. ^ Yuste, Rafael (21 April 2015). "The discovery of dendritic spines by Ramón y Cajal". Frontiers in Neuroanatomy. 9 (18): 18. doi:10.3389/fnana.2015.00018. PMC 4404913. PMID 25954162.
  12. ^ a b José María López Piñero, "Santiago Ramón y Cajal", Universita de València
  13. ^ John Brande Trend (1965). The Origins of Modern Spain. Russell & Russell. p. 82. Ramón y Cajal was a liberal in politics, an evolutionist in philosophy, an agnostic in religion...
  14. ^ Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj (2010). Marcelo Suarez-Orozco (ed.). Educating the Whole Child for the Whole World: The Ross School Model and Education for the Global Era. NYU Press. p. 165. ISBN 9780814741405. In that sense, it was interesting to learn that Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the great pioneer of modern neuroanatomy, was agnostic, but still used the term soul without any shame.
  15. ^ DISCURSO DEL SR. D. SANTIAGO RAMÓN Y CAJALTEMA: FUNDAMENTOS RACIONALES Y CONDICIONES TÉCNICAS DE LAINVESTIGACIÓN BIOLÓGICA Sesquicentenario de Santiago Ramon y Cajal, 23 pages, p. 39-40: a los que te dicen que la Ciencia apaga toda poesía, secando las fuentes del sentimiento y el ansia de misterio que late en el fondo del alma humana, contéstales que á la vana poesía del vulgo, basada en una noción errónea del Universo, noción tan mezquina como pueril, tú sustituyes otra mucho más grandiosa y sublime, que es la poesía de la verdad, la incomparable belleza de la obra de Dios y de las leyes eternas por Él establecidas. Él acierta exclusivamente a comprender algo de ese lenguaje misterioso que Dios ha escrito en los fenómenos de la Naturaleza; y a él solamente le ha sido dado desentrañar la maravillosa obra de la Creación para rendir a la Divinidad uno de los cultos más gratos y aceptos a un Supremo entendimiento, el de estudiar sus portentosas obras, para en ellas y por ellas conocerle, admirarle y reverenciarle. [English Translation: P. 39-40: To those who tell you that Science quenches all poetry, drying up the sources of feeling and the longing for mystery that pulses in the depths of the human soul, tell them that in the vain poetry of the people, based on an erroneous notion of Universe, as petty as it is puerile, you substitute a much more grandiose and sublime one, which is the poetry of truth, the incomparable beauty of the work of God and the eternal laws established by him. He is only able to understand something of that mysterious language that God has written in the phenomena of Nature; And he has only been able to unravel the wonderful work of Creation to render to the Divinity one of the most grateful and accepted cults to a supreme understanding, to study his portentous works, for them and for them to know, to admire and to revere him ]
  16. ^ "Las creencias de Darwin y Cajal | Amigos de Serrablo". 2009-03-31. Retrieved 2015-03-15.
  17. ^ Higgins, Edmund S. (16 February 2018). The neuroscience of clinical psychiatry : the pathophysiology of behavior and mental illness. George, Mark S. (Mark Stork), 1958- (Third ed.). Philadelphia. ISBN 978-1-4963-7202-4. OCLC 1048335337.
  18. ^ "Santiago Ramón y Cajal: biografía del médico español más célebre". 2019-09-18. Retrieved 2019-09-19.
  19. ^ "FANZCA part I notes on the Autonomic Nervous System". Retrieved 2015-03-15.
  20. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1906". Retrieved 2020-04-30.
  21. ^ J. S. Edwards & R. Huntford (1998). "Fridtjof Nansen: from the neuron to the North Polar Sea". Endeavour. 22 (2): 76–80. doi:10.1016/s0160-9327(98)01118-1. PMID 9719772.
  22. ^ NIH Exhibits Original Cajal Neuroscience Drawings Intramural Research Program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH IRP), YouTube, 2:16 min
  23. ^ Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal The Weisman Art Museum, retrieved 9 August 2017
  24. ^ Documental sobre Santiago Ramón y Cajal en Redes YouTube, 34 min, Sep 22, 2012. (Spanish)
  25. ^ "Ramón y Cajal". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  26. ^ Otis, Laura (11 March 2007). "Dr. Bacteria".; Published 11 March 2007.


External links[edit]