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Alberto Ferrús

Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Then and now URL:

The idiosyncrasy of Spanish society and scientific research have not been fully understood throughout history. This is the reason why the case of Santiago Ramón y Cajal and his school pose a singular event that needs to be studied in detail. This study needs to begin with the analysis of the social and historical context in which our figure lived. In the 19th century, the science that was done in Spain moved within the borders set by the Enlightenment's utilitarianism and strong mental restrictions set by the Catholic education. As a result, the advances of life sciences arrived to our country late and the disciplines were practiced by a very small number of professionals who could not add-up the critical mass needed, nor disseminate the knowledge adequately among younger students.

Cajal did not come from an accommodated origin, nor grew up in an environment fostering scientific research. What he did have, though, was a father who was very aware of the difference between receiving a proper solid education or leaving the future of a person in hands of emotional whims. Fortunately for the the scientists of today, Cajal studied medicine and aimed his curiosity towards questions about the biological nature of humans. After gaining a first hand knowledge on the political decadence of Spain during that period, as well as the frustrations that still nowadays hinders the practice of medicine, Cajal did have a lucky encounter. In this case it was with a colleague of his, Dr Luis Simarro, who showed him a new coloring technique applying silver staining over the nervous system; a technique which had been invented fifteen years earlier by the Italian scientist Camilo Golgi. This was really a decisive moment on the course of Cajal's professional life. With perseverance and creativity the "reazione nera" was improved and amplified until becoming a wonderful tool for unravelling the structural organization of the nervous system. The mysterious function of the unsolvable complexity of the brain could now be studied in terms of specific communication paths, of cognitive differences between species and individuals, and in terms of development and evolution. This was the birth of modern Neurobiology, and its founder was Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

In the middle of Cajal's professional peak, Spanish society was also trying to overcome from its recent disastrous past. The Regeneration was a movement that also reached education and science. The Junta para la Ampliación de Estudios (Board for Advanced Studies and Scientific Research, JAE) was an unparalleled governmental effort to develop research and disseminate knowledge among society. Without surprise, Cajal was appointed its first president. The future promises granted by the JAE, the numerous histologic school following Cajal, and many other intellectuals being part of the regeneration movement had good reasons to be hopeful. The present would now be very different if all that enthusiasm and effort had not been whipped out by the plague of hate that is rooted within our history. Cajal died only two years before the beginning of our last national tragedy.

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