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. “Like the entomologist hunting for butterflies of colorful hues, my attention pursued, in the orchard of gray matter, cells of delicate and elegant shapes, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, whose beating of wings who knows if one day will clarify the secret of mental life! ”.
That 1888, Cajal revealed that the brain was organized into individual cells, neurons, and felt “the feeling a bit egomaniacal to discover hidden islands or virgin forms that seem to wait, from the beginning of the world, a worthy viewer of its beauty.” The researcher, father of neuroscience, caught up with geniuses like Darwin and Newton and ended up winning the Nobel Prize in 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 biggest exhibitions never dedicated to 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 the oncologist Alberto J. Schuhmacher, curator of the exhibition. “Except for part of the scientific community, Cajal fans and Cajal scholars, the figure of Don Santiago is unknown and ignored, despite naming streets, squares, educational centers, hospitals and suburban 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 time recall the amazing life of the scientist, the son of Antonia Cajal, a woman from a weaving family, 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.
“Some museums in the world proudly display their letters and drawings, it is inexplicable and unacceptable that Spain today there is no museum dedicated to the memory of Cajal and his school. We do not have too many scientific heroes ”, reflects Schuhmacher, from the Aragon Health Research Institute. The Zaragoza exhibition is more valuable precisely for this reason: the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) kept the 22,000 pieces of the scientist’s legacy in 1989 in a basement of the Cajal Institute in Madrid and since then his works have only been seen with a dropper.
Last year, the Madrid College of Physicians announced that it would dedicate 1,500 square meters to the creation of a Ramón y Cajal Chair Museum around the intact room in which the scientist taught classes for 30 years, until his retirement in 1922. The private institution has offered its headquarters – a historic building of State Heritage on loan since 1970 and located in the museum axis of Madrid, next to the Reina Sofía museum – to exhibit the so-called Cajal Legacy of the CSIC, but that common project “is not on the table nor has it been contemplated,” according to a spokesperson for the public body. Instead, the CSIC is setting up a small 220-square-meter space 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.
The scientist, died in Madrid in 1934, he said that, as a young man, nothing satisfied his “indefatigable pencil”. The Zaragoza exhibition displays some of his youthful works, including several watercolors and a romantic-inspired oil painting. But the great jewel are the meticulous freehand drawings of the microscopic world that Cajal first peered into: the forests of independent neurons, which provoked incredulous smiles from the international sages of the time.
“Those were very difficult times for Spanish research fans. We had to fight with the universal prejudice of our ignorance and our radical indifference towards the great biological problems. It was admitted that Spain produced some great artist, such a long-haired poet, and gesturing dancers of both sexes; but the hypothesis that a true man of science would emerge in it was considered absurd “, Cajal regretted in his memoirs.
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 he humorously tells in Memories of my life. “In the manner of savages and women, I have always suffered from a regrettable facility to laugh: a shocking observation, an unexpected gesture, any joke, was enough to excite my noisy hilarity, without them being part to report the seriousness of the place and the solemnity of the occasion ”, wrote Cajal.
The Zaragoza exhibition also includes images of one of his most eccentric stages, when at the age of 18 he dedicated himself to the “foolish and exaggerated cult of the biceps” and became, in his own words, a “fairground Hercules” with “monstrous pectorals ”. From that muscular era, Cajal drew a conclusion that is still current: “With bodily energies what happens with permanent armies: the nation that has forged the best warlike instrument always ends up rehearsing it on the weakest or most neglected nations.”
Today, the 1906 Nobel Prize winner is an international benchmark, but somehow he also remains a stranger, Schuhmacher emphasizes. The oncologist did research between 2009 and 2012 at 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 disguised as Cajal, thinking that he was the real Cajal,” Schuhmacher recalls with a mixture of grief and laughter. The anecdote, probably, would also have been enough to excite Cajal’s noisy hilarity.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal argued that a scientist also has to act “on souls”, spending a good part of his hours “forging disciples who will succeed and surpass 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 win the Nobel Prize”, as Alberto J. Schuhmacher, curator of the Zaragoza exhibition, recalls. where you can see some works of these sons of Cajal.
The Madrid College of Physicians has also inaugurated a small exhibition at its headquarters, entitled Cajal School, Heritage of Neuroscience, which will be open until March 29, 2020 with works and objects of the disciples of the father of neuroscience. The president of the College, Miguel Ángel Sánchez Chillón, believes that this exhibition will give visitors an idea of what the future Museo Cátedra Ramón y Cajal will be like.