May 04, 2015

#04-013: Ramon y Cajal, Father of Modern Neuroscience

formal black-and-white photo of a bearded, balding man in a dark coat and bow tie
Ramón y Cajal

Note: It's never been easy to do research in Spain, a country with little support for science. But Santiago Ramón y Cajal found a way, becoming a trailblazing scientist!

Get Ready: How important is infrastructure--government support, proper laboratories, and so on--in the pursuit of new scientific discoveries? Can a "basement scientist" get far these days?

To be honest, it isn't easy to find many great scientists from Spain. This may not be an accident.

One of the greatest in modern times is Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), who received a Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1906 (along with Camillo Golgi, the Italian, after whom the "Golgi body" in the cell was named). The prize was given "in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system." For this work, Ramón y Cajal has been called "the father of modern neuroscience."

Ramón y Cajal himself complained about the state of scientific research in Spain around 100 years ago, when he said, "to do research in Spain is to cry." Things haven't gotten much better: in 2013, on the 79th anniversary of his death, Spanish researchers observed a moment of silence in mourning for Spanish science.

He was always something of a rebel. Because of his behavior, he changed schools numerous times as a boy. He was as smart as he was badly-behaved: at age 11, he was jailed for destroying a neighbor's gate of with a cannon he made himself.

He was an enthusiastic artist, but his father--a professor of anatomy--tried to turn him toward a more useful profession. After failing to get young Santiago to work as a shoemaker and a barber, his father hit on an interesting idea. He took the 16-year-old boy to a graveyard and had him draw some of the bones there. This finally stirred his interest in medicine. He would use his artistic skills later in reporting his findings.

After attending the university where his father taught, he became a medical officer in the Spanish Army. While in Cuba, he contracted both malaria and tuberculosis.

After recovering, he married, and became the father of seven children. He received a doctoral degree in medicine and became a professor of anatomy like his father. Aside from positions in several major universities, he was also director of the Zaragoza Museum and several other health-related institutions, one of which was later named the Cajal Institute after him.

In his work, he discovered that nerves are made up of discrete sections called neurons (rather than being one continuous thread) and he discovered the type of cell now called the "interstitial cell of Cajal."

He died at age 82.


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Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. anatomy
  2. anniversary
  3. enthusiastic
  4. interstitial
  5. neurons
  6. neuroscience
  7. physiology
  8. rebel
  9. stirred
  10. tuberculosis

  1. "sections" of a nerve
  2. set in motion
  3. one who goes against the expectations of others
  4. avid; excited about
  5. describes the small spaces between cells, tissues, or organs in the body
  6. the study of nerves
  7. a disease of the lungs
  8. study of the body's processes
  9. study of the body's structures
  10. marks the passage of one year

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for May 4, 2015

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. i; 2. j; 3. d; 4. e; 5. a; 6. f; 7. h; 8. c; 9. b; 10. g