Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Cajal-miSantiaago Ramon y Cajal 1 May 1852 – 18 October 1934) was a Spanish Pathologist, Histologist, Neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate. His original pioneering investigations of the microscopic structure of the brain have led him to be designated by many as the father of modern neuroscience. His medical artistry was legendary, and hundreds of his drawings illustrating the delicate arborizations of brain cells are still in use for educational and training purposes.

The son of physician and anatomy lecturer Justo Ramón and Antonia Cajal, Ramón y Cajal was born of Aragonese parents in Petilla de Aragón in Navarre, Spain. Santiago Ramon y Cajal was not Cajal, as so many writers call him. He was Ramon. His last name on his father’s side was Ramon. His last name on his mother’s side was Cajal. So, according to our standards, he was Dr. Ramón-Cajal, not Dr. Cajal. As a child he was transferred between many different schools because of his poor behavior and anti-authoritarian attitude. An extreme example of his precociousness and rebelliousness is his imprisonment at the age of eleven for destroying his neighbor’s yard gate with a homemade cannon. He was an avid painter, artist, and gymnast, but his father neither appreciated nor encouraged these abilities. In order to tame his unruly character, his father apprenticed him to a shoemaker and barber, and as he worked Ramón was well known for his pugnacious attitude.

Over the summer of 1868, Cajal’s father, hoping to interest his son in a medical career, took him to graveyards to find human remains for anatomical study. Sketching bones was a turning point for Cajal and he subsequently did pursue studies in medicine.

Ramón y Cajal attended the medical school of the University of Zaragoza, where his father was an anatomy teacher, and graduated in 1873. After a competitive examination, he 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. In order to cure this condition, he attended the Panticosa spa-town in the Pyrenees. After returning to Spain he married Silveria Fañanás García in 1879, with whom he had four daughters and three sons.

Works and theories

PurkinjeCellRamón y Cajal’s early work was accomplished at the Universities of Zaragoza and Valencia, where he focused on the pathology of inflammation, the microbiology of cholera, and the structure of Epithelial cells and tissues. It was not until he moved to the University of Barcelona in 1887 that he learned Golgi’s silver nitrate preparation and turned his attention to the central nervous system. During this period he made extensive studies of neural material covering many species and most major regions of the brain.

Ramón y Cajal made several major contributions to neuroanatomy. He discovered the axonal growth cone, and experimentally demonstrated that the relationship between nerve cells was not continuous but contiguous. This provided definitive evidence for what would later be known as “neuron doctrine”, now widely considered the foundation of modern neuroscience. In debating neural network theories (e.g. neuron theory, reticular theory), Ramón y Cajal was a fierce defender of the neuron theory.

He provided detailed descriptions of cell types associated with neural structures, and produced excellent depictions of structures and their connectivity.

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.

He discovered a new type of cell, to be named after him: the interstitial cell of Cajal (ICC). 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 that move material along the gastrointestine, vitally mediating neurotransmission from motor nerves to smooth muscle cells.

In his 1894 Croonian Lecture, he suggested in an extended metaphor that cortical pyramidal cells may become more elaborate with time, as a tree grows and extends its branches. He also devoted a considerable amount of his time to studying hypnosis (which he used to help his wife with birth labor) and parapsychological phenomena, but a book he had written on these areas got lost during the Spanish Civil War.


Nobel_PrizeCajal received many prizes, distinctions and societal memberships along his scientific career including and honorary Doctorates in Medicine of the Universities of Cambridge and Würzburg and an honorary Doctorate in Philosophy of the Clark University. Nevertheless the most famous distinction he was awarded was the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906 together with Italian Camillo Golgi “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system”. This was seen as quite controversial because Golgi, a stout reticularist, disagreed with Cajal in his view of the neuron doctrine. Edited from  Santiago Ramón y Cajal

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