Santiago Ramón y Cajal did not drink alcohol or smoke. Around 1888, his peak year, the young scientist sat before his microscope like an adventurer with a machete through the jungle. “My homework started at nine in the morning and used to last until around midnight. And the most curious thing is that the work gave me pleasure. It was a delicious intoxication, an irresistible charm, “he wrote in his memoirs, Memories of my life. “As the entomologist on the hunt for butterflies of showy nuances, my attention chased, in the garden of gray matter, cells of delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, whose flapping of wings who knows if one day will clarify the secret of mental life! ”.

Cajal, at 18 years old.


Cajal, at 18 years old.

That 1888, Cajal revealed that the brain was organized into individual cells, the neurons, and he felt “the somewhat egotistical feeling of discovering hidden islands or virgin forms that seem to expect, from the beginning of the world, a worthy beholder of its beauty”. The researcher, father of neuroscience, caught up with geniuses like Darwin and Newton and ended up winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906, a feat never repeated by a scientist in Spain. Until January 11, it is still possible to contemplate in the auditorium of the University of Zaragoza one of the largest exhibitions ever dedicated to the genius, born in Petilla de Aragón (Navarra) in 1852.

“It is sad and painful that Spanish society knows, or at least studies or is forced to study, Darwin, Pasteur, Curie, Newton or Einstein, but not Cajal,” says oncologist Alberto J. Schuhmacher, curator of the exposition. “Except for part of the scientific community, the Cajal fans and Cajal scholars, the figure of Don Santiago is unknown and ignored, despite naming streets, squares, educational centers, hospitals and local stops,” he says.

The exhibition, open since October, exhibits some 350 pieces, including authentic works of art, such as the oil portrait of Cajal painted by Joaquín Sorolla and his marble statue sculpted by Mariano Benlliure. Photographs and objects from the period recall the amazing life of the scientist, the son of Antonia Cajal, a woman from a family of weavers, and Justo Ramón, an illiterate man who learned to read and write on his own and who ended up going to Barcelona on foot from Zaragoza to study Medicine. The exhibition shows a monumental anatomical atlas that father and son began to elaborate around 1879, drawing with pastel and chalk the corpses that they dissected in the Zaragoza hospital.

A sheet drawn by Cajal around 1879, the beginning of a monumental anatomical atlas.


A sheet drawn by Cajal around 1879, the beginning of a monumental anatomical atlas.

“Some museums in the world proudly display their letters and drawings. It is inexplicable and unacceptable that Spain today does not have a museum dedicated to the memory of Cajal and his school. We have no scientific heroes, ”reflects Schuhmacher, from the Aragon Institute of Health Research. The Zaragoza exhibition is more valuable precisely because of this: the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) kept in 1989 the 22,000 pieces of the scientist’s legacy in a basement of the Madrid Institute Cajal and since then his works have only been seen with droppers.

Last year, the Madrid Medical College announced that it will dedicate 1,500 square meters to the creation of a Ramón y Cajal Chair Museum around the intact room in which the scientist taught for 30 years, until his retirement in 1922. The Its private institution has offered its headquarters – a historic State Heritage building donated since 1970 and located on the axis of the Madrid museum, next to the Reina Sofía museum – to expose the so-called Cajal Legacy of the CSIC, but that common project “is not about table has not been contemplated “, according to a spokesman for the public body. Instead, the CSIC is setting up a small space of 220 square meters at its headquarters on Calle Serrano in Madrid to display “the most relevant part” of the legacy. Everything indicates that the capital, after decades of contempt, will have two incomplete museums dedicated to Cajal.

A romantic-inspired oil painting by a young Cajal.


A romantic-inspired oil painting by a young Cajal.

The scientist, who died in Madrid in 1934, said that, as a young man, nothing satisfied his “tireless pencil”. The Zaragoza exhibition displays some of his youthful works, including various watercolors and a romantically inspired oil painting. But the great jewel is the meticulous freehand drawings of the microscopic world to which Cajal first peeked: the forests of independent neurons, which caused incredulous smiles to the international sages of the time.

“Those were very difficult times for Spanish research amateurs. We had to fight with the universal prejudice of our lack of culture and of our radical indifference towards great biological problems. It was admitted that Spain produced some brilliant artist, such as a long-haired poet, and dancing gesticulants of both sexes; but the hypothesis that a true man of science arose in her was considered absurd, ”Cajal lamented in his memoirs.

Self-portrait of Cajal in Zaragoza, around 1880.


Self-portrait of Cajal in Zaragoza, around 1880.

The scientist graduated in Medicine at the age of 21, saw the sea for the first time at 22 and gave his first kiss at 24, upon returning from the war in Cuba, as humorously tells in Memories of my life. “In the manner of savages and women, I have always suffered from a regrettable facility for letting out laughter: a shocking observation, an unexpected gesture, whichever a joke, were enough to excite my noisy hilarity, without being part of reporting the seriousness of the place and the solemnity of the occasion ”, wrote Cajal.

The Zaragoza exhibition also includes images of one of its most eccentric stages, when at 18 he dedicated himself to the “foolish and exaggerated biceps cult” and became, in his own words, a “fair Hercules” with “monstrous pecs ” From that muscular time, Cajal drew a conclusion that continues today: “With bodily energies what happens with permanent armies: the nation that has forged the best warrior instrument always ends up trying it on the weakest or most neglected nations.”

Today, the 1906 Nobel winner is an international reference, but somehow he is still unknown, according to Schuhmacher. The oncologist investigated between 2009 and 2012 at the Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York and during that time he visited several neuroscience centers. “Several American laboratories had on their wall a photo of the actor Adolfo Marsillach dressed as Cajal, thinking he was the real Cajal,” recalls Schuhmacher with a mixture of grief and laughter. The anecdote, probably, would also have been enough to excite Cajal’s loud hilarity.

Forge disciples to outdo you

Santiago Ramón y Cajal defended that a scientist must also act “on souls”, spending a good part of his hours “forging disciples who succeed him and exceed him.” He cultivated an extraordinary school, with three disciples – Pío del Río Hortega, Fernando de Castro and Rafael Lorente de Nó – who “had real options to get the Nobel Prize”, according to Alberto J. Schuhmacher, curator of the Zaragoza exhibition, where you can see some works of these children of Cajal.

The Madrid College of Physicians has also inaugurated a small exhibition at its headquarters, titled Escuela Cajal, Patrimony of Neuroscience, which will be open until March 29, 2020 with works and objects by the disciples of the father of neuroscience. The president of the College, Miguel Ángel Sánchez Chillón, believes that this exhibition will serve to give visitors an idea of ​​what the future Ramón y Cajal Chair Museum will be like.

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