Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852 – 1934)

Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Spanish Nobel laureate in medicine.

Photo credit: Original photo is anonymous although published by Clark University in 1899. Restoration by Garrondo – Cajal.PNG, Public Domain,


Santiago Ramon y Cajal was a Spanish neuroscientist and pathologist, specializing in neuroanatomy, particularly the histology of the central nervous system. He won the Nobel prize in 1906, becoming the first person of Spanish origin who won a scientific Nobel prize. His original investigations of the microscopic structure of the brain made him a pioneer of modern neuroscience. Hundreds of his drawings illustrating the delicate arborizations of brain cells are still in use for educational and training purposes.


Santiago Ramon y Cajal was born 1 May 1852 in the town of Petilla de Aragon, Navarre, Spain. His father was an anatomy teacher. As a child, he was transferred many times from one school to another because of behavior that was declared poor, rebellious, and showing an anti-authoritarian attitude. An extreme example of his precociousness and rebelliousness at the age of eleven is his 1863 imprisonment for destroying his neighbor’s yard gate with a homemade cannon. He was an avid painter, artist, and gymnast, but his father neither appreciated nor encouraged these abilities, even though these artistic talents would contribute to his success later in life. In order to tame the unruly character of his son, his father apprenticed him to a shoemaker and barber.


Ramon y Cajal as a young captain in the Ten Years’ War in Cuba, 1874.

Graphic credit: Izquierdo Vives, Public Domain,



Over the summer of 1868, his father hoped to interest his son in a medical career, and took him to graveyards to find human remains for anatomical study. Sketching bones was a turning point for him and subsequently, he did pursue studies in medicine. Ramon y Cajal attended the medical school of the University of Zaragoza, where his father was an anatomy teacher. He graduated in 1873, aged 21. After a competitive examination, he served as a medical officer in the Spanish Army. He took part in an expedition to Cuba in 1874-75, where he contracted malaria and tuberculosis. In order to heal, he visited the Panticosa spa-town in the Pyrenees. After returning to Spain, he received his doctorate in medicine in Madrid in 1877. In 1879, he became the director of the Zaragoza Museum, and he married Silveria Fananas Garc?a, with whom he had four daughters and three sons. Cajal worked at the University of Zaragoza until 1883, when he was awarded the position of anatomy professor of the University of Valencia. His early work at these two universities focused on the pathology of inflammation, the microbiology of cholera, and the structure of epithelial cells and tissues.


In 1887 Cajal moved to Barcelona for a professorship. There he first learned about Golgi’s method, a cell staining method which uses potassium dichromate and silver nitrate to (randomly) stain a few neurons a dark black color, while leaving the surrounding cells transparent. This method, which he improved, was central to his work, allowing him to turn his attention to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), in which neurons are so densely intertwined that standard microscopic inspection would be nearly impossible. During this period he made extensive detailed drawings of neural material, covering many species and most major regions of the brain. In 1892, he became a professor in Madrid. In 1899 he became director of the National Institute of Hygiene , and in 1922 founder of the Laboratory of Biological Investigations , later renamed to the Cajal Institute. He died in Madrid on October 17, 1934, at the age of 82, continuing to work even on his deathbed.


Ramon y Cajal made several major contributions to neuroanatomy. He discovered the axonal growth cone, and demonstrated experimentally that the relationship between nerve cells was not continuous, but contiguous. This provided definitive evidence for what Heinrich Waldeyer coined the term neuron theory as opposed to the reticular theory This is now widely considered the foundation of modern neuroscience. Cajal was an advocate of the existence of dendritic spines, although he did not recognize them as the site of contact from presynaptic cells. He was a proponent of polarization of nerve cell function and his student, Rafael Lorente de N?, would continue this study of input-output systems into cable theory and some of the earliest circuit analysis of neural structures. By producing excellent depictions of neural structures and their connectivity and providing detailed descriptions of cell types he discovered a new type of cell, which was subsequently named after him, the interstitial cell of Cajal (ICC). This cell is found interleaved among neurons embedded within the smooth muscles lining the gut, serving as the generator and pacemaker of the slow waves of contraction which move material along the gastrointestinal tract, mediating neurotransmission from motor neurons to smooth muscle cells. In his 1894 Croonian Lecture, Ramon y Cajal suggested (in an extended metaphor) that cortical pyramidal cells may become more elaborate with time, as a tree grows and extends its branches.


Cajal devoted a considerable amount of time studying hypnosis which he used to help his wife during labor and parapsychological phenomena. A book he had written on these topics was lost during the Spanish Civil War. Cajal received many prizes, distinctions, and societal memberships during his scientific career, including honorary doctorates in medicine from Cambridge University and Wurzburg University and an honorary doctorate in philosophy from Clark University in the United States. The most famous distinction he was awarded was the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906, together with the Italian scientist Camillo Golgi “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system“. This caused some controversy because Golgi, a staunch supporter of reticular theory, disagreed with Ramon y Cajal in his view of the neuron doctrine. He published more than 100 scientific works and articles in Spanish, French and German. Among his most notable works were:


Rules and advice on scientific investigation


Degeneration and regeneration of the nervous system

Manual of normal histology and micrographic technique

Elements of histology


A list of his books includes:


Ramon y Cajal, Santiago (1905) [1890]. Manual de Anatomia Patologica General (Handbook of general Anatomical Pathology) (in Spanish) (fourth ed.).

Ramon y Cajal, Santiago; Richard Greeff (1894). Die Retina der Wirbelthiere: Untersuchungen mit der Golgi-cajal’schen Chromsilbermethode und der ehrlich’schen Methylenblauf?rbung (Retina of vertebrates) (in German). Bergmann.

Ramon y Cajal, Santiago; L. Azoulay (1894). Les nouvelles idees sur la structure du systeme nerveux chez l’homme et chez les vertebres’ (‘New ideas on the fine anatomy of the nerve centres) (in French). C. Reinwald.

Ramon y Cajal, Santiago; Johannes Bresler; E. Mendel (1896). Beitrag zum Studium der Medulla Oblongata: Des Kleinhirns und des Ursprungs der Gehirnnerven (in German). Verlag von Johann Ambrosius Barth.

Ramon y Cajal, Santiago (1898). “Estructura del quiasma optico y teoria general de los entrecruzamientos de las vias nerviosas. (Structure of the Chiasma opticum and general theory of the crossing of nerve tracks)“ [Die Structur des Chiasma opticum nebst einer allgemeine Theorie der Kreuzung der Nervenbahnen (German, 1899, Verlag Joh. A. Barth)]. Rev. Trim. Micrografica (in Spanish). 3: 15-65.

Ramon y Cajal, Santiago (1899). Comparative study of the sensory areas of the human cortex. p. 85. Archived from the original on 10 September 2009.

Ramon y Cajal, Santiago (1899-1904). Textura del sistema nervioso del hombre y los vertebrados (in Spanish). Madrid.

Histologie du systeme nerveux de l’homme & des vertebres (in French) – via Internet Archive.

Texture of the Nervous System of Man and the Vertebrates.

Ramon y Cajal, Santiago (1906). Studien uber die Hirnrinde des Menschen v.5 (Studies about the meninges of man) (in German). Johann Ambrosius Barth.

Ramon y Cajal, Santiago (1999) [1897]. Advice for a Young Investigator. Translated by Neely Swanson and Larry W. Swanson. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-68150-1.

Ramon y Cajal, Santiago (1937). Recuerdos de mi Vida (in Spanish). Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 84-206-2290-7.


Other accomplishments and honors:


In 1905, he published five science-fiction stories called “Vacation Stories“ under the pen name “Dr. Bacteria“.

The asteroid 117413 Ramonycajal has been named in his honor.


In the 21st Century:

In 2014, the National Institutes of Health exhibited original Ramon y Cajal drawings in its Neuroscience Research Center.


This year 2018:

An exhibition called The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal travelled through the US beginning 2017 at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis ending April 2019 at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


A short documentary by REDES is available on YouTube. Spanish public television filmed a biopic series to commemorate his life


Take a look at the beauty of the drawings by the great neuroscientist, Santiago Ramon-y-Cajal


Review of Cajal’s work

Life of the genius at work

Short biography

NIH discusses the great drawings

Discussion of 21 drawings, with a short pause between each discussion


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