Santiago Ramón y Cajal Biography

Educator, Scientist (1852–1934)
Santiago Ramón y Cajal was a pioneering Spanish neuroscientist who was awarded the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.


Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born in Navarre, Spain, on May 1, 1852. He trained in medicine and physiology, teaching at the University of Valencia and the University of Madrid. Ramón y Cajal's research on the structure of the brain earned him a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded in 1906. He died in Madrid on October 18, 1934.

Early Life

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born on May 1, 1852, in Petilla de Aragón, Navarre, Spain. His parents, physician and anatomy lecturer Justo Ramón and Antonia Cajal, were Aragonese. Ramón y Cajal had disciplinary problems as a child and was forced to switch schools several times, despite his obvious intelligence.

Ramón y Cajal began to apply himself academically during his university years, attending the medical school of the University of Zaragoza. His father taught anatomy at the time he was enrolled. Ramón y Cajal then served as a medical officer in the Spanish Army—a coveted position, despite its hazards. After contracting malaria and tuberculosis in Cuba, he traveled to the Pyrenees town of Panticosa for rehabilitation.

Academic Career

A restored Ramón y Cajal returned to Spain, where he married Silveria Fañanás García. The couple had seven children together. In 1877, he received his doctorate in medicine and began teaching anatomy at the University of Valencia. His work at the university focused on the study of inflammation, cholera and epithelial cells.

Ramón y Cajal moved in 1887 to the University of Madrid, where he began work on the central nervous system. He was to make his greatest contributions in the field of neuroanatomy, finding evidence of the so-called "neuron doctrine" and dendritic spines. He discovered a cell that came to bear his name: the interstitial cell of Cajal, or ICC. His work on the structure of the brain during these years helped to shape the field of modern neuroscience.

Honors and Later Life

Over the course of his career, Ramón y Cajal was honored many times. The Universities of Cambridge and Wurzburg, as well as Clark University in the United States, awarded him honorary doctorates. In 1906, Ramón y Cajal received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He was awarded the prize, along with Italian Camillo Golgi, "in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system." Despite their apparent bond, the two honorees differed sharply in their evaluation of the controversial "neuron doctrine." Their joint recognition was considered surprising as a result of their disagreement.

In addition to his regular teaching appointment, Ramón y Cajal served as director of the Zaragoza Museum of the National Institute of Hygiene in the 1870s. In 1922, he founded the Laboratory of Biological Investigations (later renamed the Cajal Institute).

Ramón y Cajal died in Madrid on October 18, 1934. In 2005, scientist Juan Lacruz named an asteroid in his honor: 117413 Ramonycajal. Ramón y Cajal remains well-known in his native Spain, where his life became the basis of a television miniseries.

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