Nobel Prize in Medicine and Father of Neuroscience

Santiago Ramón y Cajal: Nobel Prize in Medicine and Father of Neuroscience

The lives of distinguished men must endure. One of them is the Spanish doctor Santiago Ramón y Cajal born in Petilla, a town in the province of Aragón that belongs to Navarra, in the home formed by Justo Ramón Casasús and Antonia Cajal Puente on May 1, 1852.

By: Mai Editor 10 Oct 2020

By: Mai Editor

10 Oct 2020

During his school years, his father, also a doctor, taught him French, arithmetic, grammar, physics, and geography. His primary school studies were carried out in various towns in the province where his father served as a physician. After finishing high school at the Institute of Huesca, Santiago enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine of Zaragoza where he obtained a degree in rural surgeon in 1873. Later he entered the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Madrid to graduate as a surgeon at the year 1877.

In 1874, having just finished his medical studies in Zaragoza, he enlisted in the army to complete two years of compulsory military service. He was assigned to the medical corps and promoted to the rank of captain. After a short stay in Burgos, he was transferred to Cuba during the American country’s conflict of independence. On the island, he was appointed director of the Vista Hermosa field hospital in the province of Camagüey. There he became seriously ill with malaria and was referred for treatment to the military hospitals of San Isidro and Havana. In the latter city he requested retirement from the army which was granted and returned to Spain in 1875 to undergo a definitive cure in the care of his family.

Once recovered from his ailments and with a stable job as a professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Zaragoza, he married Silveria Fañanás García, his girlfriend from his youth in 1879. They had 7 children. One of them, Santiago, died as a child of a congenital heart disease. Another, Jorge, stood out in the medical field like his father, grandfather Justo and his uncle Pedro.

In the same year of his marriage, Dr. Cajal began a long and fruitful teaching career in the medical schools of the universities of Zaragoza, Valencia, Barcelona and Madrid. He devoted himself to teaching the so-called basic sciences such as anatomy, histology (study of healthy tissues that make up an organism like the body) and pathology (analysis of them but affected by diseases). Many of his students followed in the teacher’s footsteps and came to excel in their chosen specialty. The most fruitful period as a researcher was in Barcelona from 1887 to 1892. There he devoted himself to study with patience, dedication and perseverance, using a microscope as his work tool, the cells that make up the brain. His observations and discoveries about the neuron would lead him to international science stardom as one of its most respected and admired members for the seriousness of his work.

His research was carried out by staining small samples of the human or animal brain with dyes based on precious metals such as gold and silver in the laboratory. Chemical reactions between these substances produce dark deposits in cells that allow them to be viewed through microscope lenses. In this way he was able to see and describe some components of the neuron found in his body, also called the soma, or in its prolongations or tiny branches designated dendrites and axons. But Cajal was not content with observing dead cells in a tissue, but rather intuited and proposed how they function in living, animated beings.

At the end of his second year in Barcelona, ​​he proposed the neuronal theory according to which said cell is the basic unit of brain architecture and its functioning. For Cajal, each neuron is separated from its neighbors by a space and they communicate with each other through junctions that are now called synapses. This means that the neurons in the nervous system, of which the brain is a part, are individual and contiguous cells as is the case in other animal and plant organs and tissues. The contacts between neurons that Cajal proposed, and their separation at synapses, were corroborated in the 1950s by electron microscopy studies that allow the observation of smaller structures when viewed with a light microscope. In 1889, completing his hard work and postulating his theories, Cajal decided to present and discuss his findings and opinions at an international forum. He traveled to the Annual Congress of the Anatomical Society of Germany where he was listened to with skepticism. However, one of the attendees, Dr. Albert Kölliker, showed special interest in Cajal’s work and proposed that he reproduce it in his own laboratory. Cajal accepted and with the passage of time received with great enthusiasm the news that his discoveries had been confirmed by Dr Kölliker, and the results published in internationally renowned scientific journals. It is now claimed that Dr. Kölliker was the “discoverer” of Cajal.

The rise of Dr. Cajal to the top of world scientific recognition was not easy, on the contrary arduous and slow. His main detractor was the Italian researcher Camilo Golgi, who developed the techniques for coloring the tissues used by Cajal and other scholars, and argued that neurons in the brain were cells that were linked together forming a continuous or reticular structure. Golgi denied that neurons were individual cells. This position was maintained despite the fact that Cajal’s observations had already been verified by scientists in other countries. Cajal and Golgi shared the 1906 Nobel Prize in medicine, and during the acceptance of that honor, Golgi bitterly continued his attacks on the Spanish.

His discoveries led him to form a research group, known as the Spanish Neurohistological School, whose members devoted themselves to studying various aspects of the nervous system such as its development, the other types of cells that compose it, its activity and the diseases that affect it. . The result was a set of theories and truths that with the passage of time have been confirmed and their validity remains intact.

Dr. Cajal also embarked with great success in other fields such as painting, drawing, photography, literature and chess. He preferred to illustrate his scientific publications with his own drawings, something unusual within the scientific community of his generation and today. It is said that he made more than 20,000 drawings. As a draftsman he has been considered one of the best of his time and compared to Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vince. Out of more than 100 scientific works in Spanish, French and German, in literature he wrote an autobiography and works in the genres of novels and short stories.

The worldwide recognition of this genius is reflected in the numerous titles, medals, honors, monuments and awards received over more than a century. With admiration, Dr. Cajal is considered the father of Neuroscience. He died in Madrid on October 17, 1834, at the age of 82.

Photo: Dr. Cajal in the laboratory next to the microscope, his work tool.

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