Santiago Ramón y Cajal spent his early years in a world of art and imagination. The child of a practical father who had “learned the terror of poverty and the rather exclusive worship of utilitarian sciences,” Cajal satisfied his creative impulses in ways that didn’t interfere with his studies.
“Whenever I had finished super, I eagerly hastened to my little room and, until I fell asleep, spent my time giving form and life to the jumble of stains on the wall and the cobwebs of the ceiling, which I transformed by the power of thought, into the wings of a magic stage, across which filed the cavalcade of my fantasies,” Cajal writes in his autobiography, Recollections of my Life.
Cajal eventually enrolled in medical school, in part to please his father. An artist at heart, Cajal enjoyed visualizing and drawing biological structures. His scientific, yet artistic, sketches brought microscopic images to life.
“The cerebral cortex is similar to a garden filled with trees,” Cajal said in a lecture, “the pyramidal cells, which, thanks to an intelligent culture, can multiply their branches, sending their roots deeper and producing more and more veined and exquisite flowers and fruits.”
The more Cajal sketched, the more he wanted to learn how information actually traveled through the nervous system.
In 1887, a new Italian invention—the Golgi stain—allowed Cajal to see the nervous system as more than a series of continuous branches. The stains allowed Cajal to see a complex network of individual neurons, separated by gaps.
Cajal believed neurons communicate across these gaps.
1906 - Present
The scientific community acknowledged the significance and potential of Cajal’s theories; Cajal shared the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Golgi stain inventor, Camillo Golgi, for contributions to understanding the structure of the nervous system.
Despite this recognition, Cajal’s ideas would not be widely accepted until the 1950s, when electron microscopy revealed that neurons do, as Cajal guessed, send signals across gaps, or junctions, called synapses.
Most scientists today consider Cajal the founder and father of modern neuroscience.