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Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Born 1852
Died 1934

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Spanish neuroanatomist, born May 1, 1852, Petilla de Aragón, Navarra; died October 18, 1934, Madrid.

Biography of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Santiago Ramón y Cajal made fundamental contributions to the understanding of the nervous system, particularly through the neuron doctrine. In 1906 he shared the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine with Camillo Golgi (1843-1926) "in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system".

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born in a poverty-stricken and isolated village in Navarre, the son of Justo Ramón y Cassús, and of his wife Antonia. His father was a struggling barber-surgeon who eventually acquired a medical degree from the University of Zaragoza, whereupon he became a country doctor. His father wanted him to study medicine, but the young Santiago was more interested in art and at school showed contempt for his teachers and for the whole educational process. As a schoolboy he was always up to pranks. As a result his father had him apprenticed to a barber and then to a shoemaker. The shoemaker said he was lazy, and a judge had him jailed for taking shots at his palace with a cannon which he improvised by hollowing out a tree-trunk. After these educational experiences he began the study of medicine at the University of Zaragoza.

Following his graduation as a licentiate in 1873 he joined the army medical service and in the following year was sent to Cuba as a regimental surgeon. He protested about many of the practices of the time, including the use of the wards as stables for his commanding officers horses. Disciplinary action was taken against him, but he contracted malaria and within twelve months had to be discharged from the service and sent back to Spain, now determined to pursue a career in medicine. He received his doctorate from the University of Madrid in 1877, becoming professor extraordinary of anatomy the same year. It was at this time he began the histological studies that wee to make him famous. In 1879 he became head of the anatomical museum in Saragossa.

Ramón y Cajal, virtually without aid, trained to become a highly competent microscopist and histologist. His first finding of a nerve cell, found with a rickety Verick microscope, was published in The Catholic Daily in Zaragoza. While convalescing from tuberculosis in 1884 he also became a skilled photographer. That year he was appointed to the chair of comparative anatomy at Valencia. In 1887 Ramón y Cajal was appointed to the chair of normal and pathological histology at Barcelona and, in 1892, to the chair of histology and pathological anatomy at Madrid, a position he held until his retirement in 1922. In 1900 he had been appointed director of the Investigaciones biológicas and the Instituto nacional de Higiene.

Ramón y Cajal sent reprints of his first paper to the crowned heads of Europe, and at Zaragoza he was ridiculed for his egotism in sending papers beyond the Pyrenées for publication, But they were accepted, and later editors were seeking him out.

Cajal was the recipient of many prizes, honorary degrees, and distinctions, both Spanish and foreign. In 1889 he distinguished himself with his demonstration of silver-impregnated brain sections before a meeting of the German Anatomical Society at the University of Berlin. At the time the Swiss anatomist, embryologist, and histologist Rudolf Albert von Kölliker (1817-1905) was chairman of the society. In 1894, on the recommendation of Charles Scott Sherrington (1857-1952) he was invited to give the Croonian lecture to the Royal Society. In 1899, only a year after the Spanish-American war, he was special lecturer at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts.

In 1906 he shared the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine with Camillo Golgi, and in 1909 he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society. He married Silveria Fanañás in 1880; they had four sons and four daughters.

Work
After his appointment to Madrid in 1892, Cajal established his Laboratorio de Investigaciones Biológicas at the University and a school of followers had begun to form. In the course of more than half a century from 1880, Ramón y Cajal published numerous scientific papers and an imposing number of books, much of it in Spanish. Cajal published more than 250 articles concerned largely with the normal and pathological histology of the nervous system in animals and man. Besides his neurological work, he also published a manual of pathological anatomy. This was written in 1887-1888 and went through seven editions. In the twenty years of his most intense activity, 1886-1906, he may be said to have laid the histological foundations of our present knowledge of the nervous system.

    As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain, will also be a mystery.
    Charlas de Café

    The human brain is a world consisting of a number of explored continents and great stretches of unknown territory.
    Charlas de Café

    The joviality of friends is the best antidote for the venom of the world and the fatigues of life. In the words of the old song: “He loves me who makes me laugh.”
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    It is best to attenuate the virulence of our adversaries with the chloroform of courtesy and flattery, much as bacteriologists disarm a pathogen by converting into vaccine.
    Charlas de Café

    That which enters the mind through reason can be corrected. That which is admitted through faith, hardly ever.
    Charlas de Café

    Glory is nothing more than oblivion postponed.
    Charlas de Café

    Genius, like the inhabitants of the depths of the sea, moves by its own light.
    Charlas de Café

    Libraries are successively the cradles and the sepulchres of the human mind.
    Charlas de Café

    Zoology is often very instructive. It is well known how extraordinary is the longevity of the crocodile and the elephant, animals of thick and almost impenetrable hide. From this we may infer that to attain long life, we should sheathe our spiritual skin, making it insensible to the pinpricks of rivals, of enemies and of the envious.
    Charlas de Café

    A mature fat man excites pity, like a ship well stocked for its last voyage.
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    Excessive corpulence, the index of good nature and deliberation in the man, is commonly a guarantee of fidelity in the woman. Aside from the shameless artistic error involved in exhibiting a monstrous figure, the heart of the rotund matron has enough to do in irrigating some hundred-weights of adipose tissue.
    Charlas de Café

    In youth we say: “I die without having lived.” And it would be the same if we lived the three hundred years of the crocodile or the two hundred years of the elephant.
    Charlas de Café

    It is idle to dispute with old men. Their opinions, like their cranial sutures, as ossified.
    Charlas de Café

    Physical pain is easily forgotten, but a moral chagrin lasts indefinitely.
    Charlas de Café

    Only the doctor and the dramatis enjoy the rare privilege of charging us for the annoyance they give us. Charlas de Café

    I remember that once I spent twenty hours continuously at the microscope watching the movements of a sluggish leucocyte in its laborious efforts to escape from a blood capillary.
    Recollections of My Life, Part I, Chapter I. Translated by E. Horne Craige.

    Like an earthquake, true senility announces itself by trembling and stammering.
    Charlas de Café

    To be right before the right time is heresy, which is sometimes paid for by martyrdom.
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    A woman venerates her parents, esteems her husband, but adores only her sons.
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    We disdain and hate from lack of self-comprehension and we understand in proportion as we study ourselves. Charlas de Café

    In the intricate warp of the brain one can advance only step by step, and if one is to do so safely, the front trenches must be those dug by men like Meynert, Golgi, Edinger, Flechsig, Kölliker, Forel, and the other great ones ..... I threw myself into the task with sure faith that in that dark thicket where so many explorers had been lost, I should capture, if not lions and tigers, at least some modest game scorned by the great hunters.

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