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Happy Birthday to the Father of Modern Neuroscience, Who Wanted to Be an Artist

Ramón y Cajal may have changed neuroscience forever, but he always maintained his original childhood passion for art

Drawing of Purkinje cells and granule cells from pigeon cerebellum by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1899. Photo: Instituto Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Madrid, Spain

It took Santiago Ramón y Cajal quite a while to find his true calling in life. He tried his hand at cutting hair and at fixing shoes. As a boy in the mid-1800s, he planned for a career as an artist. But his father, an anatomy professor, shook his head and decided that young Ramón y Cajal would pursue medicine instead. The would-be artist went on to found the field of modern neuroscience, earning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along the way. Born May 1, 1852, in Spain, Ramón y Cajal would have celebrated his 151st birthday today.

Before he began to stand out as a researcher, Ramón y Cajal had been an anatomy school assistant, a museum director and a professor and director of Spain’s National Institute of Hygiene. His most important work did not begin until around 1887, when he moved to the University of Barcelona and began investigating all of the brain’s different cell types. He discovered the axonal growth cone, which control the sensory and motor functions of nerve cells, and the interstitial cell of Cajal (later named after him), a nerve cell found in the smooth lining of the intestine. Perhaps most significantly, he developed the “neuron doctrine,” which demonstrated that nerve cells were individual rather than continuous cellular structures. Researchers consider this discovery the foundation of modern neuroscience.

In 1906, the Nobel committee awarded Ramón y Cajal and an Italian colleague the prize in Physiology or Medicine ”in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system.”

While Ramón y Cajal may have changed neuroscience forever, he maintained his original childhood passion. Throughout his career, he never gave up his art. He sketched hundreds of medical illustrations, and some of his drawings of brain cells are still used in classrooms today. 

More from Smithsonian.com:

What Neuroscience Sounds Like  
Neuroscience Explores Why Humans Feel Empathy for Robots 

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