Santiago Ramón y Cajal Biography (1852-1934)


Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born in Petilla, Aragón, Spain, on March 1, 1852. His father, a professor of applied anatomy, wanted young Santiago to pursue a medical career and enrolled his son first at the College of the Aesculpian Fathers and later at the Institute at Huesca. Young Ramóny Cajal was not really interested in medicine, however, and he left school to become apprenticed first to a barber, then to a shoemaker. At the age of 16, he returned to his formal education, entering the University of Saragossa.There he began studying the only medical subject in which he was really interested: anatomy. After graduation, Ramón y Cajal entered military service but, after contracting malaria in Cuba, he was discharged. He then returned to Saragossa, where he was made director of the museum in 1879. In 1883, hereceived a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Madrid.

Around this time, Ramón y Cajal became involved in a controversy thenraging among anatomists. The question was how nerve messages are transmittedthrough the body. One theory--the reticular theory--held that nerve messagestravel through a complex network of nerve fibers in physical contact with each other. Cell bodies observed within this network were thought to play primarily a structural and supportive role. Ramón y Cajal was able to provide new evidence about this issue by developing new cell-staining techniques. These stains showed more clearly than ever before the detailed structure of nerve tissue. With this technique, he was able to see that nerve cells are distinct units whose extensions--axons and dendrites--are not in contact with each other, but are separated by narrow gaps (synapses). For this discovery, Ramón y Cajal shared the 1906 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with Camillo Golgi.

Ramón y Cajal continued working on nerve structure and function for another three decades. In 1891, he found that nerve messages enter a neuron byway of the dendrites and leave by way of the axon. Later studies dealt with the growth and degeneration of neurons. He also developed new stains that madepossible even more detailed studies of nerve tissue. For his many accomplishments in the field, Ramón y Cajal is often regarded as the father of modern neuroanatomy.

Ramón y Cajal's first academic appointment was as Professor of Descriptive and General Anatomy at the University of Valencia in 1883. He then wenton to become Professor of Histology at the University of Barcelona in 1887 and Professor of Histology and Pathological Anatomy at the University of Madridin 1892. He served at Madrid until 1921, when he became director of the Cajal Institute, founded in his honor by King Alfonso XIII. Ramón y Cajaldied in Madrid on October 18, 1934.

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