Brain cells. These days everybody has heard of them. But 150 years ago, their very existence was a wild theory.
Back then, scientists knew that living things were mainly composed of cells. But the tissue of the nervous system seemed like it might be an exception. These cells were overwhelming to look at under the microscopes of the day. They had the appearance of threadlike “arms,” which were so slender and delicate, and so densely intertwined, individual cells could not be differentiated. It seemed the brain and spinal cord might be made of some kind of continuous net, not a series of separate cells at all. The “cells vs. net” debate–also known as the “neuron theory vs. reticular theory” debate–raged back and forth, but neither side could muster conclusive evidence for their hypothesis.
Then, in 1873, Italian scientist Camillo Golgi discovered a method of staining individual cells, making them visible under a microscope. Unfortunately, many in the scientific community took no note. But a Spanish scientist named Santiago Ramón y Cajal saw major potential in Golgi’s technique. Ramón y Cajal spent decades using and improving the technique, investigating and illustrating individual cells of the brain and spinal cord. For Golgi’s technique, and Ramón y Cajal’s application of it, the two men were awarded the 1906 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Ramón y Cajal’s work established a scientific basis for the concept of “brain cells.” Most scientists of the day were thoroughly convinced by Ramón y Cajal’s work, but the “cells vs. net” debate stuck around for another few decades. Full, incontrovertible proof that the brain is made up of individual cells had to wait for the invention of the electron microscope in the 1950s.
Even so, Ramón y Cajal’s work also permitted the rapid development of an entire field. “Many consider Ramón y Cajal the father of neuroscience, for his work on neuron theory, neural pathways and more,” says neurosurgeon Dr. Donald Quest who is currently serving as Historian of The Society of Neurological Surgeons (SNS). At the recent SNS annual meeting, Dr. Quest presented a lecture on the interesting life and enduring work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
Ramón y Cajal had not always been a quiet observer and illustrator of cells. His wild youth even saw him imprisoned at age 11 for destroying his neighbor’s garden gate with a homemade cannon. His father, an anatomy teacher, tried to instill discipline in the boy by apprenticing him to a shoemaker and a barber. When Ramón y Cajal was a teenager, his father tried to interest him in a medical career by bringing him to graveyards on anatomical illustrating expeditions. Those expeditions developed not only the boy’s interest in medicine, but also his real talents for scientific illustration. Ramón y Cajal ended up enrolling in medical school, and after graduation he served as a medical officer in the Spanish army.
As he grew older, Ramón y Cajal began to seek out calmer pastimes to capture and nourish his imagination. As an adult, he wrote, “I finally chose the cautious path of histology [cell study], the way of tranquil enjoyments.”
Histology was tranquil and solitary, yes, but by no means boring to Ramón y Cajal. He wrote, “I should feel myself happy in contemplating the captivating spectacle of minute life in my forgotten corner and listening, entranced, from the ocular of the microscope, to the hum of the restless beehive which we all have within us.”
Today, Ramón y Cajal’s “corner” is anything but forgotten. Generations of scientists have turned their attention to the “restless beehive” of the brain. And over the last century-plus, the field of neuroscience has developed branches as delicate and complex as those found in any brain cell.
Today, Ramón y Cajal’s detailed, meticulous illustrations of these branching cells still stand as definitive examples. “The man was a superb artist,” says Dr. Quest. “His drawings of micro-anatomy surpass even micro-photography in some instances.”
Ramón y Cajal didn’t just look and draw, though. He observed ever so carefully, puzzling over and interpreting the minutest details in his microscope. In this way he became to first human to realize that cells throughout the brain were constantly forming new connections with one another. The discovery astounded and entranced him.
His awe of the nervous system is apparent not just in his illustrations, but also in his thoughts and his writing. He wrote, for example, that the cortex of the human brain is “a garden filled with innumerable trees… which can multiply their branches, send their roots deeper… and produce more exquisite flowers and fruits every day.” He marvelled at the powerful interconnectedness of the nervous system and its ability to form new connections.
Just as Ramón y Cajal observed, for the first time, discrete brain cells making many new and complex connections to other discrete brain cells, he himself made many connections among the otherwise discrete fields of medicine, science, writing and, of course, visual art.
“Ramón y Cajal knew some of the Surrealist painters, such as Salvador Dali,” says Dr. Quest. “And his scientific drawings influenced several schools of art, including Abstract Expressionism.” This influence on art was no accident. Ramón y Cajal felt the power of art deeply. “Drawing is a language, an articulation of ideas which allows thoughts to develop,” wrote Ramón y Cajal. And both his scientific and artistic ideas and thoughts inspired others.
Ramón y Cajal used his artistic talents to give the world its first look at brain cells. He was clearly inspired by their beautiful complexity and their incredible capacity for change..
“Any man could,” he wrote in 1897, “if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.”
To Ramón y Cajal, a person did not need to hone a talent for illustration or sculpting in order to be an artist. And a person need not be a neurosurgeon, like Dr. Quest, to have an effect on the brain. The human brain itself is a work of art, Ramón y Cajal felt—and each brain’s owner the artist.