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A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Artist

[ 1 ] July 1, 2010 | Ben Ehrlich

"La Vírgen de Casbas" | 1860-1871. Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Cajal Legacy. Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid, Spain. Reproduced with the permission of the inheritors of Santiago Ramón y Cajal ©.

As a child growing up in small towns across the rustic provinces of northern Spain, Santiago Ramón y Cajal was completely obsessed with drawing.  By the age of nine he was incessantly scribbling on paper, sketching in books, and painting walls, gates, doors, and facades.  This graphic impulse was strictly forbidden by his formidable father, Justo Ramón.  Legend has it that as a young man Don Justo walked over three-hundred-and-fifty miles from tiny and remote Larrés to bustling Barcelona in search of opportunity and prosperity in the field of medicine.  Such a migration would have been difficult enough despite even the sturdiest shoes, and yet the determined peasant crossed the Pyrenees mountains on foot.  After his journey, Justo Ramón worked to become a well-respected and successful country doctor, and went on to achieve an advanced surgical degree.

To his father’s dismay, school did not interest young Santiago.  His attention always wandered and his hand had to doodle.   Whenever he could, Santiago disappeared into the rich and colorful countryside and there recorded his visual impressions:

Translating my dreams onto paper, with my pencil as a magic wand, I constructed a world according to my own fancy, containing all those things which nourished my dreams.  Dantesque countrysides, pleasant and smiling valleys, devastating wars, Greek and Roman heroes, the great events of history all flowed from my restless pencil, which paid little attention to common scenes, to ordinary nature, or to the activities of daily life [ibid, 38].

He indulged his fantasies and sketched avidly.  It is, therefore, no surprise that, having experienced such passions, Santiago Ramón y Cajal wanted to be a professional artist.  Only his father absolutely forbade this.

"Cabin"| 1860-1871. Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Cajal Legacy. Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid, Spain. Reproduced with the permission of the inheritors of Santiago Ramón y Cajal ©.

Determined to terminate the creative process of his son, Don Justo solicited a professional opinion.  In Ayerbe—the town of roughly six-hundred residents in which the family lived—the only qualified expert appears to have been an itinerant house painter, recently hired to whitewash the walls of the local church.  The judged piece was a copy of the Apostle Santiago—the boy’s birth saint—made with colored paints stolen from the church.  Surely eager to appease his furious boss, the house painter condemned the effort of the eight-year-old.  “But does the boy really show no aptitude for art?”  Don Justo asked.  “None, my friend,” replied the house painter.  Writing as an adult, Cajal remembers his sense of defeat:  “Farewell to the ambitious dreams of glory, illusions of future greatness!  I must exchange the magic palette of the painter for the nasty and prosaic bag of surgical instruments [ibid, 40-42]!”

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  1. Jen Erickson says:

    This is a beautifully written piece that takes you by the hand and weaves a story that takes a subject that is academic science and gives it a human portrait. Passionate intellect.

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