Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) is recognized as one of the founders of contemporary neuroscience. This is because his work in histology and anatomy has been fundamental in describing the functioning of our neural networks. In addition, his biography is full of stories related not only to science, but to art and even to military activity.

In this article we will review the biography of Santiago Ramón y Cajal , going through some of the most representative elements of the life and work of one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.

Brief biography of Santiago Ramón y Cajal: who was it?

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born on May 1, 1852 in Petilla de Aragón, in the north of Spain. He was the son of a surgeon who later trained as a physicist.

Although he would become one of the most important scientists in history, Ramón y Cajal’s concerns during his adolescence and youth were very focused on art and physical activity, and not so much on schoolwork. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that there seems to be no relation, these artistic concerns were fundamental skills for the formation and scientific development of Ramón y Cajal later on.

At the young age of 16, together with his father, he carried out different studies in anatomy based on drawings that Ramón y Cajal himself made. This was one of his first approaches to anatomy and art , as well as being one of the antecedents to his interest in the practice of dissection.

In 1873, Ramón y Cajal graduated from the Zaragoza School of Medicine . There he had followed the teachings of the German Theodor Schwann, a researcher specialized in the studies of the cell as the basic structural unit of every living organism.

Subsequently, and in the political context of conflict in Spain, Ramón y Cajal occupied the position of military doctor within the services of the Spanish army . As part of this he spent some months in Cuba, and it was until his return to Zaragoza that he continued his studies in histology and anatomy.

In 1879 he became an associate professor at the University of Zaragoza, where there was also a physiology laboratory that allowed him to approach the studies made through the microscope . In the same year, he formed a family with Silveria Frañañás, with whom he had seven children.

In 1881 he joined the University of Valencia as a professor, and later the Universities of Barcelona and Madrid. In the latter city he founded the laboratory of biological research, in 1922, now known as Instituto Cajal , one of the most important research centres in neurobiology in the world.

The Basics of Contemporary Neuroscience

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, together with the Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi, was the first historian to suggest that neurons are the primary structures and functional units of the nervous system , and that they are also structures that are directly connected to each other, but are relatively autonomous.

In other words, thanks to their research it was possible to know that neurons are cells that communicate with each other through different elements that are distributed in the cellular spaces (such as axons). This laid the foundation for the development of neurosciences as we know them today.

In order to analyze the individual structure of the neurons, Ramón y Cajal used a test called “silver stain method”, which Camillo Golgi had developed . Through this test, both researchers found that the nervous system functions as a kind of mesh or net.

This meant an important contribution, since previously it was thought that the nervous system was composed of separate cells, which communicated by continuity (Golgi himself thought the latter).

The development of their research and Ramon y Cajal’s perseverance in perfecting the staining method, allowed them to obtain clear images of the nerve endings and to suggest that the neurons communicate by contiguity, through the branches of the dendrites and the axons that connect the neuronal bodies.

The legacy of this Spanish researcher

The use of the silver chromate staining method began with the study of the brains of bird and small mammal embryos. Especially with the embryos’ brains it allowed them to obtain clear stains of the grey substance of the brain, which later was transferred to the study of human neuronal activity.

For all these reasons, in 1906 both researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology. Likewise, all their work was compiled in a book that has become one of the classics of neuroscience: El sistema nervioso del hombre y los vertebrados .

Finally, although Ramón y Cajal did not study neuropathology directly, much of the knowledge and research he developed has been used to understand the functions and alterations of neuronal systems.

Bibliographic references:

  • González, M. (2006). Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a hundred years after the Nobel Prize. Ciencias, 84: 68-75.
  • New World Encyclopedia. (2015). Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Retrieved 13 June 2018. Available atón_y_Cajal.