A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Artist

Cajal’s great insight came in 1888, the most progressive year of his scientific career.  He describes the solution as frankly commonsensical.  Frustrated by the unpredictability and inscrutability of la reazione nera—which seemed to hide the forest among tangled trees of fully grown processes—Cajal sought a way to represent his cellular subjects in a truer light.  In his memoirs Recuerdos de mi vida (Recollections of My Life) he explains his thought process:

‘Since the silver chromate yields more instructive and more constant pictures in embryos than in the adult, why,’ I asked myself, ‘should I not explore how the nerve cell develops its form and complexity by degrees, from its germinal phase without processes . . . to its adult or definitive condition?  In this developmental course, will there not, perhaps, be revealed something like an echo or recapitulation of the dramatic history lived through by the neuron in its millennial progress through the animal series?’

With this thought in mind, I took the work in hand, first in chick embryos and later in those of mammals.  And I had the satisfaction of discovering the first changes in the neuron, from the timid efforts at the formation of processes, frequently altered and even resorbed, up to the definitive organization of the axon and dendrites [Cajal 1989, 365].

Known as the ontogenetic or embryological method, this type of treatment ultimately unveiled the essential identity of the nerve cell.  In the words of Cajal, “Since the full grown forest turns out to be impenetrable and indefinable, why not revert to the study of the young wood, in the nursery stage, as we might say?” [ibid, 324]

Similarly, biography may be viewed as the literary outgrowth of biology.  The development of a human being—a multi-cellular organism—retains some of the primordial patterns conserved throughout the evolution of life on earth, discernible at many magnitudes.  This fact of modern biology creates a unique poetic symmetry:  the scientific genius resembles the cells under his microscope, and by studying their secrets, he sings his own.  In the case of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the best method to examine his life is the one he himself used.  “If the stage of development is well chosen,” Cajal explains, “the fundamental plan of the histological composition of the gray matter rises before our eyes with admirable clarity and precision”[ibid, 324-5].  A well-wrought portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal should reveal the essence of the legendary individual who was to discover individuality in the brain.  But once upon a time he was a rebellious boy who loved to draw, and this must guide the first brushstroke.

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About the author

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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