By Valerie Nikolas
“Undoubtedly, only artists devote themselves to science.”
– Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1900 interview
Art and science may seem like complete opposites to some. But for Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, blending the two led him to groundbreaking discoveries about the human mind. Growing up in the late half of the 19th century, Cajal dreamed of becoming an artist, but his father encouraged him to pursue medicine instead.
As a neuroscientist, Cajal found a way to blend his talents by drawing detailed diagrams of the brain as he observed it through a microscope. “Cajal represents a good example of the bridge between science and artistic inspiration that existed in an earlier age,” said Javier DeFelipe, a researcher at Cajal’s namesake research institute in Madrid.
Novel at the time, scientists still use Cajal’s drawings and techniques in research today. He won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his pioneering work.
The Cajal Institute is not only the largest neuroscience research center in Spain—it is also home to a robust collection of Cajal’s drawings, equipment and other artifacts. Neuroscientists at the Cajal Institute find in them a constant source of inspiration.
“We take care of the Cajal legacy, always,” said Juan de Carlos, a Cajal Institute researcher who’s overseen the preservation of this collection for 10 years. A tour of the Cajal legacy is a mix of science and art, as were Cajal’s mind and career.
Juan de Carlos displays the Nobel Prize diploma that Cajal was awarded in 1906 for his groundbreaking discoveries on the structure of the nervous system. Along with the Nobel Prize, Cajal also won numerous international awards, such as the Moscow Prize, the Helmholtz Medal and the Cruz Award. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
More than 3,000 brain tissue sample slides Cajal prepared are housed in the institute, where they can still be examined through a microscope. Cajal got his start doing histology work at his home by analyzing the brains of chickens and any other animal tissues he could obtain. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
The scope that started it all: a Zeiss with a new horizon in precision optics. “These tools changed the world,” said DeFelipe. “Imagine studying the brain with this microscope, when now we have these huge things.” (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
Cajal stained samples with chemicals and observed them under a microscope. This led to him developing a theory of neural connections that remains one of neuroscience’s central tenants today. Cajal’s “neuron doctrine” posits that the brain is made up of interconnected networks of brain cells, called neurons, which are separated by tiny gaps, called synapses. This network carries messages to and from brain cells to create everything we do and think. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
Once he had developed proof for his neuron doctrine, Cajal traveled with his tools and samples to Germany, the hub of the scientific community at the time. There he met and discussed his findings with Albert Kölliker, who helped Cajal gain acceptance in the scientific community. Before this, scientists believed that brain cells were all connected. Cajal’s persistence led to a paradigm shift in the scientific community’s understanding of brain cells, from thinking of them as connected to realizing there are gaps between them that foster communication. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
One of Cajal’s 1,800 freehand drawings archived at the Cajal Institute. His drawings depict everything from lizard brain cells to glial cells in the retina of a bee. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
Juan de Carlos displays one of Cajal’s drawings. “It’s a hobby,” he says of his responsibility to maintain the Cajal legacy. “When I start to talk about Cajal I can’t stop.” De Carlos has written two books and several papers about Cajal’s influence on neuroscience. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
Juan de Carlos (right) describes one of Cajal’s diagrams to Noori Chai (left), a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Gitler Lab who visited the Cajal Institute during her vacation in Spain on May 16. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
Rosario Moratalla Villalba is head of the Cajal lab that studies the neurobiology of a brain region called the basal ganglia. The research in her lab has implications for understanding drug misuse and Parkinson’s disease. She uses Cajal’s silver staining method to determine the organelles in brain cells that die when exposed to methamphetamine. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
Javier DeFelipe holds the book he wrote about Cajal. DeFelipe has worked at the Cajal Institute since 1976. In the beginning of his career DeFelipe spent his lunch breaks in the institute’s basement, cataloguing Cajal’s drawings. He says his respect and admiration for Cajal have only grown throughout the years. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
In addition to his work at the Cajal Institute, the Human Brain Project and the Cajal Blue Brain Project, DeFelipe has published several books and papers about Cajal’s contributions to the field and the interplay between science and art. “You start to think, how at that time, were people like Cajal able to see what they saw with these things?” DeFelipe wonders. “I am always thinking about that. And I feel a connection.” (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)
Photo at top: De Carlos shows off a ceramic jug that’s part of the Cajal legacy collection. The jug is decorated in a classic Spanish style, but the untraditional pattern of brain cells adorning its outside is perfectly emblematic of Cajal’s blend of science and art. “I love this one,” de Carlos says. “It’s amazing.” (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)