Santiago Ramon y Cajal: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Jennifer Pettigrew

Jennifer has a master's degree in nursing and been a clinical instructor for BSN students.

Physician, scientist and artist Santiago Ramon y Cajal did much more in his life than that for which he is best-known- developing the groundwork for the neuron doctrine. In this lesson we'll take a look at his childhood and personal life.

From Rebellious Kid to Creative and Scientific Genius

Picture a young boy shunned from school to school due to behavioral problems, a mischief-maker who is jailed at the age of 11, and who later snuck into a graveyard to rob graves. What would you expect to become of such a kid? Where would he end up? It turns out that such a rebel would grow up to be known as the father of modern neuroscience and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Birth and Childhood

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born May 1, 1852 in Petilla de Aragón, a poor village in northern Spain. He was the oldest son of Antonia Cajal and Justo Ramón Casasús (known as Don Justo). Don Justo was a no-nonsense parent and Santiago was constantly in trouble, despite his obvious intelligence. Santiago was interested in art and sports, which his father discouraged, and he even had a professional artist tell Santiago his artwork was no good in order to discourage him. When Santiago was 11 he spent a few days in jail for blowing a hole in his neighbor's gate with a homemade cannon. In the midst of transferring Santiago from school to school due to his behavior problems his father eventually tried apprenticing him out learn a trade. In a final attempt to engage his son's interest in medicine his father took him to a local cemetery where some human remains were being unearthed and the pair took specimens back to their home for Santiago to sketch, of which Cajal later said, ''Deeply was I impressed by finding and examining these human relics.'' This finally got Cajal interested in academic pursuits and he graduated from medical school at age 21.

Young Adulthood

Cajal was drafted into the military and served as an army doctor in the Ten Years' War in Cuba before receiving an honorable discharge after contracting malaria and tuberculosis.

Cajal spent all he had on his first microscope in 1866 and went on to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Zaragoza in medicine in 1877 at the age of 25, though his grades were poor due to his illness.

Ramon y Cajal in Valencia
A self-portrait of Cajal with his microscope

Two years later Cajal married for love, against the advice of his family and friends, Silvería Fañanás García. Although she was uneducated, Silvería brought other things to their marriage which Cajal lauded later in life- she loved him and believed in him unreservedly. One of the reasons his friends tried to discourage him from marrying was that they worried a family would interfere with his career, but Cajal later said of his family, ''the children of the flesh did not smother the children of the mind.'' They had 7 children and Cajal describes instances in which his wife sacrificed many comforts for the sake of economy so that Cajal could stick with his investigative pursuits. Cajal and Silvería were married in the Catholic church and all of their children were baptized Catholic. While Silvería remained a devout Catholic throughout her life, Cajal was critical of organized religion. Some of his later writings indicated a desire to return to a Catholic, or at least Creationist, view of the world. In a lecture to the Royal Academy of the Sciences he stated,

''To those who tell you that Science quenches all poetry… tell them that in the vain poetry of the people, based on an erroneous notion of Universe…you substitute a much more grandiose and sublime one, which is the poetry of truth, the incomparable beauty of the work of God and the eternal laws established by him...''

In 1887 he became a professor at the University of Barcelona. It was at this post that he learned of the Golgi staining method that would lead to his Nobel Prize-winning research. The staining method proved that nerve cells could be colored by using silver nitrate, so Cajal began using this method and achieved many unprecedented results. He used his artistic talent to draw detailed images of cell types associated with neural structures.

A famous illustration by Cajal- this particular image is his depiction of a retina
image is his depiction of a retina (part of the eye)

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