A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Artist

Drawing of a Purkinje cell in the cerebellar cortex done by Cajal, after using the Golgi stain.

This is the story of how an artistic son grew up to become the father of modern neuroscience.  In 1873, an Italian pathologist named Camilo Golgi stirred the scientific community by managing to expose the brain in a new light—or darkness.  Golgi found that by immersing nervous tissue first in a potassium dichromate solution and then in a silver nitrate solution, one could show a small number of cells—randomly—in a naked, black entirety.  The stain—which Golgi named la reazione nera (“the black reaction”)—was hugely and internationally influential.  From his inky-looking data, Golgi induced that our brain is composed of a syncytium, or a physically continuous nervous net.  The new conclusion supported an already prominent hypothesis:  the “reticular theory,” which was proposed by the German anatomist Joseph von Gerlach in 1871. (Imagine a structure similar to the enmeshed fingers of your two hands).  But this turns out to be incorrect, an explanation destined to fall flat atop the scrap heap of once-received wisdom.  Camilo Golgi was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his spectacular stain, which is still used by investigators today.

In fact, the most important result of la reazione nera occured half a generation after its invention when an unknown Spanish academic saw some expert preparations in the private laboratory of a colleague.  The sight incited an insatiable need to see more.  At that moment the ambitious scientist became excited—and started firing.  After Charles Darwin, Santiago Ramón y Cajal—though far less well-known than the founder of evolutionary theory—is the second greatest biologist of his era.  He was the first of two Spanish scientists to receive a Nobel Prize, which he strangely shared in 1906 with his wrongheaded rival.  The most famous and important discovery of Cajal was the neuron, a cellular entity proven to be the basic anatomical, physiological, genetic, and metabolic unit of the nervous system [DeFelipe 2006].  In the 1890s, Cajal provided indisputable evidence of distinct cerebral individuality in the form of his portraits of neurons, which finely—finally—revealed the composition of our mysterious mental matter.  As profoundly true as great science and as truly creative as great art, the investigations of Cajal offer rare and precious insights into life and its infinitely small secrets.

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Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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