Neurons as Art: See Beautiful Anatomy Drawings by the Father of Neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Art depends on pop­u­lar judg­ments about the uni­verse, and is nour­ished by the lim­it­ed expanse of sen­ti­ment. . . . In con­trast, sci­ence was bare­ly touched upon by the ancients, and is as free from the incon­sis­ten­cies of fash­ion as it is from the fick­le stan­dards of taste. . . . And let me stress that this con­quest of ideas is not sub­ject to fluc­tu­a­tions of opin­ion, to the silence of envy, or to the caprices of fash­ion that today repu­di­ate and detest what yes­ter­day was praised as sub­lime.

- San­ti­a­go Ramón y Cajal

The above draw­ing is the sort of sub­lime ren­der­ing that attracts throngs of vis­i­tors to the world’s great mod­ern art muse­ums, but that’s not the sort of renown the artist, Nobel Prize-win­ning father of mod­ern neu­ro­science San­ti­a­go Ramón y Cajal (1852 ‑1934), active­ly sought.

Or rather, he might have back before his father, a pro­fes­sor of anato­my, coerced his wild young son into trans­fer­ring from a provin­cial art acad­e­my to the med­ical school where he him­self was employed.

After a stint as an army med­ical offi­cer, the artist-turned-anatomist con­cen­trat­ed on inflam­ma­tion, cholera, and epithe­lial cells before zero­ing in on his true muse—the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem.

At the time, retic­u­lar the­o­ry, which held that every­thing in the ner­vous sys­tem was part of a sin­gle con­tin­u­ous net­work, pre­vailed.

Ramón y Cajal was able to dis­prove this wide­ly held belief by using Gol­gi stains to sup­port the exis­tence of indi­vid­ual ner­vous cells—neurons—that, while not phys­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed, com­mu­ni­cat­ed with each oth­er through a sys­tem of axons, den­drites, and synaps­es.

He called upon both his artis­tic and med­ical train­ing in doc­u­ment­ing what he observed through his micro­scope. His metic­u­lous free­hand draw­ings are far more accu­rate than any­thing that could be pro­duced by the micro­scop­ic-image pho­to­graph­ic tools avail­able at the time.

His pre­ci­sion was such that his illus­tra­tions con­tin­ue to be pub­lished in med­ical text­books. Fur­ther research has con­firmed many of his sup­po­si­tions.

As art crit­ic Rober­ta Smith writes in The New York Times, the draw­ings are “fair­ly hard-nosed fact if you know your sci­ence”:

If you don’t, they are deep pools of sug­ges­tive motifs into which the imag­i­na­tion can dive. Their lines, forms and var­i­ous tex­tures of stip­pling, dash­es and faint pen­cil cir­cles would be the envy of any mod­ern artist. That they con­nect with Sur­re­al­ist draw­ing, bio­mor­phic abstrac­tion and exquis­ite doo­dling is only the half of it.

The draw­ings’ prag­mat­ic titles cer­tain­ly take on a poet­ic qual­i­ty when one con­sid­ers the con­text of their cre­ation:

Axon of Purk­in­je neu­rons in the cere­bel­lum of a drowned man

The hip­pocam­pus of a man three hours after death

Glial cells of the cere­bral cor­tex of a child

His spec­i­mens were not lim­it­ed to the human world:

Reti­na of lizard

The olfac­to­ry bulb of the dog

In his book Advice for a Young Inves­ti­gator, Ramón y Cajal took a holis­tic view of the rela­tion­ship between sci­ence and the arts:

The inves­ti­ga­tor ought to pos­sess an artis­tic tem­pera­ment that impels him to search for and admire the num­ber, beau­ty, and har­mo­ny of things; and—in the strug­gle for life that ideas cre­ate in our minds—a sound crit­i­cal judg­ment that is able to reject the rash impuls­es of day­dreams in favor of those thoughts most faith­ful­ly embrac­ing objec­tive real­i­ty.

Explore more of Ramón y Cajal’s cel­lu­lar draw­ings in Beau­ti­ful Brain: The Draw­ings of San­ti­a­go Ramón y Cajal, the com­pan­ion book to a recent trav­el­ing exhi­bi­tion of his work. Or immerse your­self at the neur­al lev­el by order­ing a repro­duc­tion on a beach tow­el, yoga mat, cell phone case, show­er cur­tain, or oth­er neces­si­ty on Sci­ence Source.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ernst Haeckel’s Sub­lime Draw­ings of Flo­ra and Fau­na: The Beau­ti­ful Sci­en­tif­ic Draw­ings That Influ­enced Europe’s Art Nou­veau Move­ment (1889)

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Vision­ary Note­books Now Online: Browse 570 Dig­i­tized Pages

Two Mil­lion Won­drous Nature Illus­tra­tions Put Online by The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in New York City April 15 for the next install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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