The Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded: Santiago Ramon Y Cajal (and Camillo Golgi)

In this year, Santiago Ramon Y Cajal, with his academic rival Camillo Golgi, for their work on the structure of the nervous system (the neuron doctrine), won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine.

In the late 1880s, Camillo Golgi, a leading neuroscientist, had recently popularized the use of "Golgi stain" amongst rising neuroscientists. Golgi had developed the stain when he realized that dousing a section (i.e., thin slice ~1 mm) of the brain in silver chromate (Ag2CrO4) formed these novel formations that were later identified to be complete neurons. What made the stain so unique and popular was, unlike any other stain at the time, one could see once they used the Golgi stain. The stain makes a random small percentage of all neurons become extremely dark. Interestingly enough, today, neuroscientists are still trying to figure the molecular mechanisms behind this stain and why this makes a random collection of neurons so easily visible, while leaving the rest completely untouched and transparent. Because of such characteristics, the stain reveals all of the dark neurons' connections and its novel and complete morphology, which was unknown before then. Another competing stain used at the time was the nissl stain. This stain would color a region of all the neurons (the area mainly around the nucleus) and was not useful in shedding light on the true nature and connectivity of neurons; despite this, it is still used occasionally today for alternate reasons.

Although it was Golgi who synthesized this staining technique, it was remarkable when the young Spanish painter, histologist, and rising neuroscientist took this stain to the next level. This was done over 25 years of morphological and anatomical studies of the cellular level of the nervous system. Ramon Y Cajal had stained virtually the entire nervous system of a variety of species, ranging from sections of brains of breeds of local fish to cross-sections of the human retina. The most influential piece of all his publications were his illustrations of these complex neuroanatomical formations. These illustrations were used as "scientific standard" amongst many neuroscientists at the time and were critical in the advancement of neuroscience in the early 1900s.

Through these series of findings and studies, Ramon Y Cajal and Golgi had solidified our understanding of the nervous system and had developed competing theories as rivals. Golgi believed in the Reticular theory, which states that the nervous system is made up of one continuous formation of nerve tissue. At the same time, Ramon Y Cajal argued that neurons communicated by contact and not by continuity- the Synaptic theory. Regardless of their rivalry on the connectivity, or lack thereof, in the nervous system, both scientists were strong proponents for the application of cell theory to the nervous system. Cell theory states that the body and all systems of the body are made up of small units of organization known as the cell. Its application in the nervous system thereby indicated the nervous system must be made up of cells, too. This theory was later dubbed as the neuron doctrine, and consequently, Ramon Y Cajal as the father of the neuron doctrine.

As for the matter of Aesthetics, the beauty and significance of this year is unique and comes in many forms, the first being winning one of the highest scientific achievements, the Nobel prize, with Golgi, an esteemed colleague who happens to be a rival. Following this contesting rival was the creator of the technique that leads to Ramon Y Cajal's findings. The next significant moment is when using the same evidence, these two profound academics had come to inherently differing conclusions.After some scientific debate, another defining moment is when these two academics agree on something and collectively construct the neuron doctrine. The last layer and, quite honestly the most humorous, is that all of their theories (the Reticular theory, the Synaptic theory, and the neuron doctrine) being proven false using the electron microscope from 1950.

This interlayered form of scientific and historical comedy is something unique and unprecedented and almost reads like a play from Oscar Wilde. It shows an ambiguous case of aesthetics in the personality traits of these academics and their respective role in the society of neuroscience in their time. Another form of Aesthetics is more traditionally shown in the artistry of Ramon Y Cajal. His most influential illustration was a painting of the cross-section of the retina; it was publicized most often from his "Die Retina der Wirbelthiere: Untersuchungen mit der Golgi-cajal' schen Chromsilbermethode und der ehrlich' schen Methylenblaufärbung." originally published in German.

His work here was classically aesthetic in its beauty and hence was used to market textbooks and scientific articles. This illustration holds scientific accuracy to the highest regard, and many textbooks today have used diagrams that are virtually identical to educate today's generation. It is quite unique to observe his work and realize the meta-aestheticism it poses. It shows the beauty in one's own body at the cellular level, especially of that system that is used to observe the world around it. It is almost like looking into a mirror, into your own eyes, and realizing that this is who you are, and those are the eyes you see the image in front of you with. Although a majority of his works were used strictly for scientific purposes in his time, today, I see peers of my own studying neuroscience, inspired by these illustrations and tattoo these illustrations on to themselves. These tattoos almost act like a mark to confine them to the pursuit of understanding a very strict and harsh science with such grace and elegance, much like the beauty of the paintings of Ramon Y Cajal.


Bear, M. F., Connors, B. W., & Paradiso, M. A. (2020). Neuroscience: Exploring the brain. Burlington, MA, PA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Cajal, S. R. (1894). Die Retina der Wirbelthiere: Untersuchungen mit der Golgi-Cajalschen Chromsilbermethode und der Ehrlichschen Methylenblaufárbung. Wiesbaden: Bergmann.

Smith, R. (2018, January 18). A Deep Dive Into the Brain, Hand-Drawn by the Father of Neuroscience. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from

Associated Place(s)

Event date:

1906 to 1906