Ten things you didn’t know about…

…the father of modern neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

Cajal, 1895. Image courtesy of Javier DeFelipe. DeFelipe, J., El jardín de la neurología: sobre lo bello, el arte y el cerebro. Madrid, 2014. Fig. 34.

The work of famous Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal had a huge influence on modern neuroscience, and his studies on the anatomical organisation of the brain are still a source of inspiration for many. Cajal’s work provided decisive evidence for the neuron doctrine; the concept that the nervous system is made up of discrete individual cells.

  1. As a child, Cajal was very badly behaved, and was forced to switch schools several times.
  2. Cajal first tried his hand at working as a barber, which did not work out well, and then as a cobbler, which had similar results.
  3. Cajal’s interest in anatomical study was piqued by his father, who, in the hope of encouraging his son to take up a medical career, took him to graveyards to study human remains.
  4. Cajal served as a medical officer in the Spanish Army, which, in spite of the dangers, was a highly sought-after position. After contracting malaria and tuberculosis in Cuba, he travelled to the Pyrenees town of Panticosa for rehabilitation.
  5. During his career, Cajal received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Cambridge (UK) and Wurzburg (DE), and Clark University in the USA.
  6. In 2005, scientist Juan Lacruz named an asteroid in Cajal’s honour: 117413 Ramonycajal.
  7. Cajal was a very enthusiastic photographer, and was constantly looking for new ways to improve his images.
  8. Cajal’s reputation as the father of neuroscience lives on, and his descriptions of the cerebral cortex are still the most authoritative.
  9. In 1905, Cajal published a set of short stories entitled “Vacation Stories”. Cajal did not give his name on the title page, and instead used the nom de plume “Dr Bacteria”.
  10. Finally, Cajal offered sage advice to new researchers:
“If a solution fails to appear … and yet we feel success is just around the corner, try resting for a while. Like the early morning frost, this intellectual refreshment withers the parasitic and nasty vegetation that smothers the good seed. Bursting forth at last is the flower of truth.”