“As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain will also be a mystery.” - Santiago Ramón y Cajal
I have always found inspiration at the intersection of art and science — believing that each field can be strengthened by the other. Art can grow from science, and science can grow from art. Perhaps no other person in history characterizes this concept stronger than Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Born to an anatomy teacher in 1852 in a small city in northern Spain, Ramón y Cajal went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology & Medicine in 1906 together with the Italian, Camillo Golgi, “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system.”
left: Cajal Legacy Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid | right: Courtesy Thomas Deerink and Mark Ellisman (NCMIR, UCSD)
Ramón y Cajal became famous for his finely detailed drawings of neuroanatomy that changed our understanding of how the nervous system is connected. In his time, neuroscientists believed that the entire nervous system formed a giant “reticulum,” or web of fibers that linked together in one big structure. Cajal, however, determined that nerve cells were not continuous, but separated, providing definitive evidence for what would later be known as the “neuron doctrine.”
Cajal always had a predilection for art. He was an avid painter, artist, and gymnast, yet all of these activities were actively discouraged by his father. Nonetheless, Cajal developed his artistic skills and applied his talents to drawing the architecture of the nervous system. “Realizing that I had discovered a rich field, I proceeded to take advantage of it, dedicating myself to work, no longer merely with earnestness but with fury,” he wrote in Recollections of My Life. “In proportion as new facts appeared in my preparations, ideas boiled up and jostled each other in my mind.”
Cajal published more than 100 articles in French and Spanish scientific periodicals during his career, focusing on the fine structure of the nervous system and especially of the brain and spinal cord, but he also studied muscles and other tissues in the field of general pathology. As you may notice in the images here, Cajal had a tremendous eye for detail.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s research led to our understanding that nerve impulses, or action potentials, jump from cell to cell in the brain. These impulses are what make up all of our thoughts, experiences, memories, and emotions, the fundamental concepts which make us human, and is the reason he is so revered in the field of neuroscience.
Cajal is an inspiring figure and a perfect example of a scientist who flourished through artistic expression. If you want further reading about Santiago Ramón y Cajal, I suggest this quick read, which includes a lot of sage advice for anyone interested in science:
Advice for a Young Investigator (Bradford Books)
“Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain”
― Santiago Ramón y Cajal