ANCESTORS OF SCIENCE

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born on 1 May 1852, in Petilla de Aragón, Spain. The Spanish histologist is regarded as the father of neuroscience because of his groundbreaking studies on the nervous system. Originally, Ramón y Cajal wanted to be an artist; however, he studied under his father--a professor of applied anatomy at the University of Zaragoza--and earned a medical degree in 1873.

From 1874 to 1875, Ramón y Cajal served as an army doctor in Cuba. Upon his return, he became an assistant in the Faculty of Medicine at Zaragoza, working with his father in the School of Anatomy. In 1879 he was appointed as the Director of the Zaragoza Museum. Thereafter, Ramón y Cajal accepted appointments at the universities of Valencia (1883), Barcelona (1887), and Madrid (1892), where he accepted the Chair of Histology. In 1900, he was appointed Director of the Instituto Nacional de Higiene and a year later the Laboratorio de Investigaciones Biológicas, which became the Instituto Ramón y Cajal. He served there until his death on 17 October 1934.

During the early 1880s, Ramón y Cajal immersed himself in researching microbiology to help Valencia recover from a cholera epidemic. It wasn't until he arrived at the University of Barcelona that he conducted his famous research on the nervous system. He distinguished individual nervous system cells (neurons) and established their polarized nature; he illustrated how nerve impulses were transmitted from the dendrites (primary entry points) to the axon (terminal nerve fiber). He also improved on Camillo Golgi's silver nitrate stain (1903) and later developed a gold stain (1913) for studying the structure of central nervous tissues of embryos and young animals. These neuron-specific stains enabled Ramón y Cajal to trace neural structures and connections. Thus, Ramón y Cajal proved that the neuron is the basic unit in the nervous system--not an undifferentiated mass, as espoused by the reticular theory--and provided a modern understanding of the nerve impulse.

Ramón y Cajal published 15 books and approximately 300 articles (with a host of translations being in French and German) and received a large number of international distinctions and awards. Among his many accolades were the Moscow Medal (1900) and the Helmholtz Medal from the Royal Academy of Sciences of Berlin (1905). He received an honorary Doctor of Medicine from the universities of Cambridge (U.K., 1894) and Würzburg (Germany, 1896) and Doctor of Philosophy from Clark University (Worcester, U.S., 1899). Ramón y Cajal shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1906 with Camillo Golgi for their work on nervous system structure.

References

1. Profile of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, the Madrid Portal Web site on 4 October 2004.

2. Profile of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, Science Fair Projects Encyclopedia Web site on 4 October 2004.

3. Profile of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, Britannica Guide to Nobel Prizes Web site on 4 October 2004.

4. Faculty of Medicine, University of Zaragoza, Spain. (2000). The Journal of International Microbiology. Vol. 3. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, Britannica Guide to Nobel Prizes Web site on 4 October 2004.

5. Biography of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, Nobel Prize Web site on 4 October 2004.