At the intersection of art and science
Drawings by Santiago Ramón y Cajal
a teen, Santiago Ramón y Cajal was known more for pranks than for being studious. He disdained authority figures, and at age fourteen he gifted his friends with a treatise on the design and use of slingshots. But he also loved exploring nature, and he indulged a mania for drawing. “Translating my dreams onto paper, with my pencil as a magic wand, I constructed a world according to my own fancy,” he wrote in his autobiography. Cajal would go on to apply that talent to exhaustive studies of brain cells and to share the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Camillo Golgi for their work on the structure of the nervous system. A selection of the more than 2,900 brain-cell drawings produced by the man who is known as the father of modern neuroscience is published by Abrams in The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. An exhibition with the same title hangs from Jan. 28 to May 21 at the University of Minnesota’s Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.
Cajal (1852-1934) was born in a small village in northeastern Spain. His father, a doctor, frowned on the boy’s artistic pursuits until a time when the elder Cajal robbed a graveyard to harvest bones for anatomical studies. When he viewed the drawings his son had done of the bones, he was amazed. His acrimony gradually turned to pride in the young man’s ability.
Cajal’s interest in doing watercolor landscapes waned as his interest in the microanatomy of the brain grew. He was known to spend prodigiously long periods at the microscope; his subject was not an easy one. When cut into, the brain presents “a relatively undifferentiated mass of gray and white matter,” according to the book’s chapter “Drawing the Beautiful Brain” by Weisman director Lyndel King and Abrams editor-in-chief Eric Himmel. An important tool for Cajal was the microscopic study of thin slices of brain tissue that he dyed to bring out detail.
Microscopic photography was not yet advanced enough to produce clear images, so anatomists like