Art and Science

A piece of art depicting Cajal's neuron, part of the Neurology, Illustrated exhibition at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Drawing of a Neuron
View full image >

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, considered by some to be the father of modern neuroscience, was the first to discover that the nervous system does not consist of a web of fibers (the reticular theory), but rather of a series of connected cells, a concept today referred to as the neuron doctrine. For this and other work on the structure of the nervous system he received the Nobel Prize in 1906. Along with his studies in the field of medicine, from a young age Ramón y Cajal had a passion for art. He illustrated his many publications with his own detailed drawings, including this work of a collection of neurons on the surface of the cerebellum.

In addition to being a Nobel-prize winning physician, Santiago Ramón y Cajal was a talented artist, creating detailed drawings of cells and neurons that are still widely used for teaching. Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) studied medicine in Spain, earning his first degree in 1873. After serving as an army doctor, he continued his studies in medicine, eventually holding professorships in Barcelona and Madrid. He published a number of books and articles in Spanish, French, and German, mostly related to the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system; his work in these fields have led some to credit Ramón y Cajal as the father of modern neuroscience. He received a number of distinguished awards throughout his career, including the Nobel Prize, with Camillo Golgi, in Physiology or Medicine in 1906, “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system.” Ramón y Cajal was the first to discover that the nervous system consists of individual cells that are separated, not continuous. With some irony, he was able to achieve this discovery using a cellular stain, invented by Golgi, who was a proponent of the reticular theory.

Despite his illustrious career in the field of neuroscience, one of Ramón y Cajal’s first loves was art. As a young boy, he enjoyed sketching and painting and longed to be an artist, but his father persuaded him to study medicine. He also developed an enthusiasm for photography, and made innovations to the photographic process. When he took up a position at the School of Anatomy in Saragossa, he requested that he be appointed Director of the Saragossa Museum. His artistic talents did not go to waste, as he illustrated his many publications with detailed neuroanatomical drawings. This particular artwork is of the parasagittal section of the cerebellum and represents one of the earliest drawings of a neuron.