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Cambridge University Science Magazine

In 1906, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) was the first ever Spaniard to receive the Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine for his “work on the structure of the nervous system”. He was one of the first scientists to characterize nerve cells and to methodically study the organisation of the human brain. Through his research into the mechanisms governing the morphology and connective processes of nerve cells, he developed a revolutionary new theory; the “neuron doctrine”, in which he proposed that the brain’s basic unit of organisation is individual microscopic cells. One could safely say that modern neuroscience stands on the pillars of Ramón y Cajal’s legacy.

A Google search soon reveals a myriad of articles on the scientific achievements of Ramón y Cajal and their impact on neuroscience and the scientific community as a whole. However, commentary on Cajal’s personal journey and how this influenced his way of approaching science is scarce. This is not only applicable to Cajal’s life, but reflects a pattern extending to the bibliography of most of our celebrated scientific figures. History focuses on scientific achievements rather than the person behind them, and rarely acknowledges failures encountered along the way. This builds an idea of successful science as being “unattainable” and leads the public to think of distinguished scientists like Charles Darwin or Marie Curie as “superhuman” and unrelatable, ultimately contributing to the inaccessibility of science.

Fortunately in the case of Cajal, we have his autobiography entitled. Memories of my life, published in 1917, to help conjure a picture of the life surrounding his discoveries.  In the book, he remembers his childhood and recounts his scientific experience. As Cajal’s great-grandnephew (a cancer researcher) writes in the prologue of the book Cajal: Un grito por la ciencia (Alonso & de Carlos Segovia, 2018), Cajal should not be viewed by scientists today as an “alien” or a one-off-a-kind scientific figure. Instead, he should be used as an example to inspire. the numerous talented scientists upon whom the future of the scientific community relies. This article aims to do exactly that: to add a new dimension to Cajal’s legacy by discovering the person behind the scientist.

Putting Cajal into perspective – childhood and background

Cajal never wanted to study medicine. You read it correctly... One of the most prominent figures in the history of neuroscience was not born with a “calling” for medicine, biology or. any kind of research for that matter. In fact, Cajal’s autobiography soon disproves the common misconception that scientific geniuses need to be extraordinarily inclined towards their subject of study from an early age. Cajal always wanted to be a painter and he studied medicine just to fulfil his father’s wishes. 

As a child, Cajal was mischievous and explorative. He was particularly fascinated by nature, its forms and its colours, an interest reflected in his drawings. However, Santiago never really stood out at school, which worried his father. He went away to study his baccalaureate at a religious school in the small village of Jaca, in the Pyrenees, but due to his poor performance, he was required to transfer to another school to finish his studies. Despite his father’s disregard for painting as a legitimate occupation, a young and passionate Santiago managed to negotiate with his father: he would improve his performance at school if he studied baccalaureate in the city of Huesca, where he could attend a school of fine art and drawing. This was be the start of Cajal’s journey trying to reconcile both his scientific and artistic interests.

The story of Cajal’s father is in and of itself an insightful one. Cajal's father was a self-made man of humble, rural origins. He studied medicine late in life, with great effort, determination and ambition. He desperately steered his son's life in this direction, while overlooking his artistic ability. This was the prelude to their complicated father-son relationship years down the line. Regardless of their frequent clash of opinions, Cajal really admired his father. Most importantly, Cajal’s father was immensely supportive of his son when Cajal faced challenges in his academic life. He taught Cajal anatomy and dissection during his first year of medicine, and also supported him during the hardship of trying to attain his professorship in Madrid. In his autobiography, Cajal writes the following passage about his father (Ramón y Cajal, 1917):

From him I adopted the beautiful ambition of being someone and to spare no sacrifices in order to achieve my goals and aspirations. He taught me to never give up on my journey just because of second motives or small inconveniences.

The person behind the great scientist

As a scientist myself, reading Cajal’s Memoirs has been utterly fascinating. Despite being a world-renowned scientist by the time he wrote it, Cajal’s way of conveying his own story is rather modest and quite humorous at times. His autobiography is completely void of pretentiousness or any sense of self-admiration and that is, paradoxically, in itself admirable. In one section of the book (xxvi), Cajal talks about his first experiences of academic milestones, from receiving the title of doctor, to applying for professorships in anatomy and trying to set up his first “lab”. It was on his trip to Madrid to take his doctoral exams in 1875 that his passion for histology was born. There, he had the opportunity to access some beautiful histological microscopy slides and their beauty struck Cajal profoundly. As a result, he resolved to set up his own microscopy lab on his return to Zaragoza.

Years later, when writing his autobiography, Cajal admitted that at that point, he actually had no idea how to prepare or carry out even some of the simplest microscopy analyses. After all, he was driven first by curiosity and the extraordinary beauty of biology rather than by the means or possibilities available to him at the time. When he got back to Zaragoza, Cajal could not find anyone that was familiar with microscopy at all. The faculty of medicine. that he was part of also had very limited financial means and the only microscope available was in the physiology lab. He managed to gain access through a friend, Dr. Borao, and used this opportunity to observe physiological phenomena like blood flow for the first time at the microscopic scale.

Retrospectively, Cajal reflected on how substantially this time fired up his budding interest in microscopy. When, in 1876, Cajal decided to get a good microscope of his own, he spent all of his personal and family savings to do so. He also bought several other microscopy accessories as well as numerous books on microscopy and histology, determined to master the art himself. What is more, since this was not a very developed field in Spain, Cajal subscribed to French (such as the Journal de micrographie) and English (The Quarterly microscopica Science) journals on the topic. Cajal’s beginnings in microscopy were not easy, but as he writes in his Memoirs, what he lacked in terms of facilities and expertise, he surely made up for in enthusiasm and willpower.

There are countless moments in Cajal's autobiography that any scientist today will still find relatable. Even in chapters solely dedicated to describing his science, Cajal always found a way of showing how his scientific endeavours ultimately moulded his personality from a naïve young man to the outstanding scientist he later became. There were several points in his life where Cajal sought refuge in science to escape personal struggles. One striking example came after Cajal accepted a professorship in Barcelona and his family moved to the city. Both his daughter and son fell. extremely ill, and his daughter died only weeks after contracting meningitis. Throughout this period, Cajal was immersed in intense scientific activity. Cajal wrote about how his daughter’s image still lives in his memory in sad contrast with one of his most beautiful discoveries; “the cylinder-axis of the cerebellar granules and its continuation to the parallel fibres of the molecular layer”. To conclude this chapter he wrote the following:

Unable to sleep and defeated by fatigue and sadness during those late hours, I developed a fixation on the inebriating light of the microscope with the aim of putting to sleep this cruel torture. One night, when the fog was starting to creep on an innocent being, a sudden brightness invaded me with the light of a new truth…

When art meets science

During his younger years, Cajal was torn between his love for art and his father’s insistence that he pursue a career in medicine. The dichotomy between Cajal the scientist and Cajal the artist slowly became a source of inner conflict. It is not until much later that he partially resolved this by making use of his drawing skills to depict all the beautiful histological structures that he studied under the microscope. Cajal is a brilliant example of how scientists are not - or should not be - only be defined only by their discoveries in the lab. Scientific achievements and artistic inclination or a love for the humanities should not be regarded as mutually exclusive. As many more before and many after him, Santiago Ramon y Cajal had interests outside of science. As did Leonardo da Vinci, an amazing painter but also well-versed anatomist and inventor, and Einstein, who played the violin. If anything, great scientific ideas - just like great art, music and literature - are based around creativity. In fact, Nobel Prize laureates are2.85 times more likely to cultivate an artistic hobby than the average scientist (Root-Bernstein et al., 2008). Cajal championed this idea, and argued that the best scientists would be those:

With an abundance of restless imagination, [who] spend their energy in pursuit of literature, art, philosophy, and all the recreations of the mind and body. To him who observes them from afar, it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality, they are channelling and strengthening them.

Art is a stimulus for science and vice versa, science is a stimulus for art. Nowadays, although still appearing in textbooks, Cajal’s drawings mostly appear in exhibitions all around the world. In 2018, Santiago’s drawings left Spain for the first time to be displayed in their very own special exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery in New York and the MIT museum in Boston with the title The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Cajal’s drawings are scientifically precise but also extremely expressive, almost as if they were surrounded by a mysterious aura. After being awarded the Nobel prize, his drawings started to be reach a much wider audience. Well-known artists from the 20th century were inspired by his work. You can see “neuronal” influences in the art of surrealists like Dali, in Argus, or Yves Tanguy, in Automatic Drawings (for more see Long Before MRIs, Santiago Ramόn y Cajal Revealed the Inner Workings of the Brain) or in conceptual sculptures like those of Eva Hesse, whose interconnected designs closely resemble the “orderly disorder” of neuronal assemblies and brain circuitry, e.g. Metronomic Irregularity I, 1966 or No title, 1969-1970.

Despite having inspired some of the most prominent artists of his century, Cajal was not particularly fond of modern art. He actually published some papers on the psychology of artists and on the evolution of art during the 19th and 20th centuries. In these papers, Cajal wrote about his. admiration of the principles followed by classical painters, intended to represent nature and reality. He even highlighted his disappointment of art critics trying to leave the classical painters and styles behind and embrace the avantgarde. I wonder what he would say if he saw his drawings exhibited as genuinely modern, alongside the work of contemporary artists.

In Cajal’s work, science became into art, allowing him to produce absolutely unique drawings. After all, it is not often that you admire art with the very own subject of it.  

Cajal’s legacy: a message to 21st century researchers

Cajal was a passionate advocate of research and viewed the mentoring of budding young scientists as a crucial part of his activity. As such, he laid the foundations of what is now known as the Spanish School of Neurology (Andres-Barquin, 2002). Cajal’s disciples went on to mak remarkable contributions of their own to neurobiology, with several of his pupils developing histological staining and preparatory techniques of nervous tissue (de Castro, 2019). One of Cajal’s students, Rafael Lorente de No, went on to synthesise tetraethylammonium (TEA) a compound still extensively used in electrophysiology to block potassium channels (Lorente de Nó, 1948).

In several chapters of his autobiography, Cajal put forward his principles and beliefs regarding the practice of research. So what makes a great scientist according to Cajal? He seldomly focused on his major discoveries when deliberating on the most important output of his scientific career. Instead, he highlighted the importance of finding fascination and enticement in what others may classify as boring. In one chapter, he mentioned how he once spent 20 hours at the microscope just looking at how a dying leukocyte tried to detach from a capillary (II, i). Cajal very passionately described what he believes to be the attributes of a good researcher and what his main mistakes were when beginning his scientific career.  He underscored the importance of patience, as well as dexterity and skills to conduct research. The most important quality of a researcher according to Cajal is one’s versatility when it comes to adapting your beliefs and quickly amending any mistakes made. Nowadays, in spite of all the technical advances, if there is one thing that we share with researchers of the past, it is that the lab teaches you that one should not become too attached to their own hypotheses:

I take it for granted that in the flow of time, my insignificant personality will be forgotten; and with it, no doubt, many of my ideas will be shipwrecked. Nothing can escape this inexorable law of life. Against all the claims of self-love, the facts initially linked to a man will eventually become anonymous, lost forever in the ocean of Universal Science.

With science still as unpredictable as ever, Cajal’s philosophy and work ethic remain a great example for young researchers. First and foremost, a great scientist should cultivate resilience and be open to innovation and discussion, while also defending their ideas and principles. Just as a young Cajal was; be stubborn! Cherish your individuality and creativity, which can so often be discouraged by rigid and systematic educational systems, and strive to continuously search for new topics that fascinate you. Doing so will foster a greater spontaneity of thought, allowing you to bridge ideas and tie concepts together. Nothing is out of reach for the artist’s imagination and we should embrace this in our scientific endeavours, as Cajal himself did.

Livia E. Lisi-Vega is a second-year PhD student in Cancer Biology (Haematology) at Downing College. Artwork by Pauline Kerekes.