Santiago Ramon y CajalSantiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934) was one of the greatest Spanish scientists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. His study of the brain and nerve cells laid the groundwork for neuroscience. He was not a man who kept his studies to one specific field, but rather made lasting important contributions to several fields. He was not a man who went unnoticed, but he was highly regarded not only for his laboratory work, but also for his scientific writings and illustrations.
As well as being a great scientist Cajal was also an excellent writer. The personal anecdotes he gives in his autobiography are what make it so great. Cajal tells his life story in a way that holds the reader's attention through all of his accomplishments. Cajal's early life, before he left his mark in the scientific world, is so personal and so interesting that it is what makes this book so truly great to read.
Cajal was not always interested in science. He underwent many changes in his early life that led him down the path that eventually made him a Noble Prize winner. He came from a modest background. His father was a modest surgeon in a very small village in the Spanish countryside. Cajal owes his excellent work ethic to his father who impressed upon him the idea of hard work leading to success. Cajal came from a poor background and worked hard like his father, to succeed in life.
Justo Ramon Cajal, Santiago's father, started his career as only a second-class surgeon. He started his family and continued to work, harder than ever, in order to get money for higher education. Through hard work and perseverance, two qualities that Santiago would pick up later in life, Justo Cajal finally reached his goal of becoming a full surgeon when his son was six years old.
Santiago Ramon y Cajal was not always as hard working as his father. Early in his life, he ignored his studies for many other pursuits. Cajal was an avid artist and excellent with watercolors as a child. He did not have money to spend on art supplies so he had to save for weeks to buy paper and pencils. He could not buy watercolors, so he had to scrape paint off of walls, or leave matchbooks with water soluble paints in hot water to make his own paints. Cajal's poor upbringing taught him to be resourceful and how to use his knowledge to make things for himself.
His father however, would not allow him to pursue such idle and useless practices. Justo Cajal did not see art as worthwhile and would not allow his son to pursue it. Ramon Cajal would not give up art that easily. He continued to draw; now it had to be in secret because his father would not allow him to draw in the house. Cajal was a man who was committed to his work through his entire life. He began a large color scale including watercolors of a specific shade, and then a drawing containing that color. He spent a large part of a year completing this work. This great undertaking led him into many troublesome adventures.
Cajal was a boy, who from a young age was not unknown to mischief. He spent most of his time outside of school with his boyhood friends making trouble in the local village. They would spend their idle time trespassing in local gardens, stealing flowers and fruits, or building contraptions to chase animals. Cajal's natural brilliance led him to be a leader of the group.
It may seem funny at first, but Cajal's boyhood mischief was what led him to make his first childhood discovery of significance. As usual he had been in trouble at school, and because he did not respond well to regular punishments, so his strict schoolmasters devised new tortures for him. Cajal's teachers decided that to teach him some manners, they would prevent him from eating throughout the day by locking him in a dark room after school without light until after dinner was over. Although this punishment was severe, Cajal made the best of it. One day after school, as he was in this room, he realized that there was a little slit in the shades that light could pass through. The light projected an image of the scene outside onto the ceiling of the room. Cajal also realized that when the opening, or aperture, of the light became larger, the image became less focused, and as the opening became smaller, the images became more focused.
Cajal thought at the time that he had discovered something new. Later in life however, he realized that this discovery, the camera obscura as it is known, was discovered two centuries earlier by Leonardo Da Vinci. He presented the discovery to his friends who dismissed it as "natural". This is when Cajal first discovered his interest in looking deeper into things. He wonders even as a young boy, how much human knowledge is lost because important discoveries are dismissed as "natural". Cajal's interest in finding out why things work the way that they do is what makes him such a great scientist later in life.
Cajal's natural interest in exploring nature, and his brilliance, alone are not enough to make him a great scientist. His education was also very important to his development as a man as well as a thinker. His father was essential in Cajal's education. As previously mentioned, the young Cajal often neglected his schoolwork for other activities. He did not take enough responsibility in his own development, so his father had to intervene. At the age of twelve, Cajal was sent to a school in a new town. At first he was bitter about leaving his friends behind, but in the end this move was probably best for him. His education proceeded much more smoothly than before, although he still was not what would be called a model student. When he took the time to devote himself to his studies, he had no trouble achieving high marks on exams. However, when Cajal was uninterested in his studies he continued to make trouble. His father had to bail him out of several quarrels with professors for Cajal to remain at school.
Cajal's transfer to a new social environment was slow at first. His anecdotes are what make his autobiography great, and the one he tells of his first encounters with his new classmates is one of my personal favorites. Cajal's mother sends him off to his new town with a long overcoat that used to be his father's. It may not seem important to us today that the tails were a few inches longer than the style of the time, but this fact made Cajal the object of his classmates' ridicule for some time. He earned himself an offensive nickname that the other children thought was hilarious. After much taunting for days, Cajal decided that instead of taking this teasing in good stride, he would assert himself by fighting back. He reflects on this bad decision and tells the reader of the horrid beating he took. However, the amusing part of the story is that not long after this terrible encounter, Cajal became best friends with one of his assailants. It is stories like these, not a list of scientific achievements, which show us the most about who Cajal really is and why his life is worth reading about.
Cajal was growing intellectually in his new environment. He began to show an interest in reading great Spanish novels such as Don Quixote. In his early life, reading such novels was regarded by his father to be idle and therefore forbidden pleasures. Cajal's newfound interest in reading stuck with him for the rest of his life, and became more important as he entered the field of science.
Cajal also grew more mischievious in his new environments. One of the skills he developed was a great skill with the sling. He was known around the town and highly regarded by all of the children for his ability with the weapon. Cajal took his playfulness too far, and after many of the townspeople who were terrorized by Cajal and his friends on a regular basis complained, Cajal was sent back to his father.
Justo Cajal made a harsh decision in punishing his son. Santiago Ramon y Cajal was to become a barber's apprentice in a new location while continuing his studies. This may seem a little odd to the modern reader, but Cajal is excellent in explaining his life to the reader. A barber was more like a doctor than the modern haircutting barber is. Being a barber's apprentice was a positive thing for Cajal because it created his interest in medicine that was to stick with him for the rest of his life.
Cajal was not to be a barbershop apprentice for long. Again he established himself as a terror in his new environment. His ability with the sling once again got him into trouble with the law. Another of my favorite anecdotes in this book is Cajal's encounter with local police who tried to stop a fight between Cajal's friends, and an enemy group of boys. Cajal is not willing to submit to the four sword-bearing police officers. Instead he flees and uses his sling to fight back. Cajal makes a narrow exciting escape. Cajal is such a great storyteller that he makes the reader support him even when he is breaking the law.
Cajal's father does not find his son's exploits as amusing as the reader does. The time comes again when he must punish his son. This time he decides to remove Cajal from his position as a barbershop apprentice and change him to a shoemaker's apprentice. Cajal is very disappointed by this and finds his new work dreadfully boring. Cajal however is very good at his new profession. He is a very talented and versatile young man. While reading this book, I could not help but to marvel at Cajal's incredible ability to excel at any task he was assigned.
Cajal was getting older and wiser. His studies continued and with a new tutor, his very own father, he developed a wealth of anatomical and physiological knowledge. He studied his other subjects with vigor as well. Cajal finally stopped neglecting his studies and learned to love subjects such as Geometry, Psychology, Calculus, and Physics. His studies were drawing to a close and he soon received his bachelor's degree.
This new seriousness in study did not mean the end of the troublemaking and mischievous Cajal. He continued in his playfulness, but even that began to develop a more scientific aspect. He designed a primitive cannon, which he used with his friends to destroy things. This got them into much trouble, but Cajal was quite pleased with his mechanical achievement, which worked surprisingly well.
Cajal also grew in size and strength over these years. He had always been one of the strongest and most athletic boys in his town, but he soon met his match. Cajal met a boy who was far stronger than he, and of course Cajal, who was not one to accept being second best, asked to know the source of the boy's secret strength. The classmate revealed to Cajal that gymnastics was how he built such strength and speed. Cajal then spent the next six months working in the gymnasium for two hours per day. He soon became the envy of the gym and at least as strong as his rival, once again showing the reader that he could be successful in anything he put his mind to.
Soon after receiving his bachelor's degree, Cajal's life took a new direction. The Spanish army drafted him. Cajal was not the kind of man to ask for a simple assignment, but rather he insisted that he be sent off to the jungles of Cuba where he served as an army medic. Cajal's knowledge of medicine was first tested here. His experiences in the army led his medical experience and prowess to grow significantly, but his time in the army was cut short by illness. He was sent back to Spain and had to pick a direction for his career.
Cajal decided, after being highly influenced by his father, to pursue an academic career. He studied to become a doctor, and applied for professorships. He failed his first set of examinations, but as anyone who has read this book knows, Cajal is not the type of man to quit here. Instead he took the time to reevaluate his personal priorities and study habits, and upon his next testing, he succeeded greatly. He obtained the chair of descriptive anatomy at the University of Valencia. It was not long before the brilliant science career of Cajal was to begin.
Cajal divides his autobiography into two parts, and this is where the second half begins. It is hard for the reader to identify as strongly with Cajal the scientist as with Cajal the rascal. As an adult we hear no more tales of mischievous exploits, but rather get highly descriptive scientific facts. Maybe when I am older and can appreciate the subdued life of the responsible Cajal as much as the exciting life of young Cajal, I will reread this book and have a new impression of it.
The only downside to reading this book is my personal lack of a scientific base of knowledge strong enough to understand all of Cajal's complex scientific concepts. I feel that had I taken three of four more years of advanced science classes before reading this book, the second half would mean so much more to me. When at its most complicated, this half of Cajal's autobiography is nothing more to me than a laundry list of incomprehensible facts.
Cajal's first original scientific work was with nerve cells, and with the structure of the brain. He investigated a problem which had been puzzling scientists from all countries of the world for years, and solved it by using ingenious tactics. It was known at that time that nerve cells had to connect to each other in some way, but scientists were yet to figure out how. The brain, which was rich in intertangled nerve cells, appeared like a forest of weeds that could not be separated from each other. Cajal came up with the idea of looking at the forest in its early stages of growth. He examined embryos of animals such as cats. He discovered that nerve cells have basket like endings by which one cell passes its message along to the next at a specific receptor end designed to receive such messages.
Cajal did not simply discover these 'basket nerve endings', but he also applied them to the study of the eye. Cajal's interest in optics was not new, but it developed from that instance in which he explored the camera obscura when he was still a little boy. Cajal was a scientist who was able to interpret data incredibly by thinking differently than scientists had previously accepted. He made the connection between the studies he had completed on the brain and studies he had finished on the retina, to show that optic nerves much connect in a criss-cross pattern, otherwise, human vision would be laterally reflected in each eye.
Cajal was a man whose scientific knowledge was very vast. In the same year that he made significant discoveries in the field of neuroscience, which he is often credited with being the father of, he published a book on histology. He also had a continuing interest in medicine and published a report on cholera.
As well as being a great laboratory scientist, Cajal was an excellent scientific lecturer and his art skills, which he developed as a young boy, made him a great scientific illustrator. His scientific, and occasional non-scientific, writings are highly decorated with carefully illustrated diagrams created by the author.
Cajal never had trouble making friends as a child, and this ability stayed with him through his adult years. In this book, Cajal talks fondly; he admires and even idolizes the other scientists of his time. As his work becomes more respected, and he grows as an important figure in the scientific world, Cajal meets more and more of the world's most brilliant scientific minds. His descriptions of these men remind the reader of his boyhood days where he was so in awe of new things. He is so impressed by these men that he does not try to be their equals he is just impressed to be mentioned with them. Cajal's modesty is present throughout all of his scientific life. Qualities like modesty, and his desire to learn, which we see Cajal developing through the early stages of the book, turn out to be the factors that make him a great man as well as a great scientist.
Cajal began to work with the German scientist can Gehuchten in 1891, and together they made some very important discoveries. One of their most interesting was the theory of the dynamic polarization of the neutron and their work with the spinal ganglia. Once again, Cajal took a new approach by examining the cerebellum of birds, amphibians and reptiles, and when he did not find adequate patterns, he descended the animal scale even more and examines earthworms and mollusks. He discovered that the structural and chemical advancement in the sophistication of neurons came as a result of adaptation to one's environment, not as a product of evolution. He used this knowledge of neurons combined with his previous work with basket nerve endings, to further examine the nerve endings of optic cells and determined that they did not terminate in nets as previously thought, but in small bunches or knobs.
Cajal made perhaps his most significant scientific discovery in 1903 when he began his work on the staining of nervous tissues. Completely by chance, after examining information put forth by another scientist, Simarro, Cajal came up with his own method for effectively staining nervous tissues. He found a very simple and constant formula for staining all parts of nervous cells; the neurofibrils, axons, and the nerve endings. Cajal's expanded theories were not regarded in scientific circles as important at first, Cajal himself did not even think that they were important at first, but this turned out to be groundbreaking. Upon Cajal's further development and application of these techniques, the scientific world began to recognize the significance. This technique is one of the keystones for neuroscience. Before Cajal's method it was impossible to stain and study specific parts of nervous tissue because the cells were so interconnected.
Cajal shared the 1906 Nobel Prize in medicine for his discoveries pertaining to neuro staining. This was a great honor for him, but the modest Cajal did not believed it was an honor that he deserved. He did not want the added attention that went with being a Nobel Prize winner. It was especially stressful for him because he was the first histologist to win the prize for medicine. Consequently, Cajal spent much of the rest of his life giving lectures and teaching rather than doing independent work. Cajal continued to do groundbreaking work, but he did not ever equal the recognition he received for his nervous system staining technique.
Cajal had a great scientific career that spanned many decades and many important discoveries. He is rightfully called the father of neuroscience. Later in life, in addition to making new discoveries, he was able to pass his knowledge down to some highly regarded students who went on to become well known scientists themselves. Cajal still lives on many years after his death through the massive collection of scientific books and drawings that he left behind and also through his incredible autobiography.
Santiago Ramon y Cajal the scientist led a great life, but it was Santiago Ramon y Cajal the young man who left a lasting impression on me. Cajal's anecdotes are entertaining and insightful. The reader follows his life and sees how his experiences help him develop as a man. Cajal is someone that I admire. He was talented in many fields and professions; he would have made a fine shoemaker or Barber had he stuck with it. He refused to be second best at anything. He had determination and incredible insights into how the world functions. Cajal's desire to learn as a young man make him a great scientist as an older man. As well as being a great scientist and an interesting person, Cajal is a great writer and this book is a joy to read.