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A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Artist

[ 1 ] July 1, 2010 | Ben Ehrlich

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was ten-years-old when his father, hoping to induce a straightening out, sent him away to Jaca, a small city in the Pyrenees where an uncle lived.

There he attended a strict college of Esculpian fathers who brutally enforced the educational philosophy of “la letra con sangre entra” (“knowledge enters with pain”)

"Cabin 2"| 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 ©.

Santiago had no aptitude for rote memorization; his memory was a visual one.  And so he became disruptive and quarrelsome, playing pranks and making mischief.  The friars whipped, starved, and locked the disobedient boy in a dark room—but to no avail.  In performing one of his frequent escapes, the juvenile prisoner literally used his pencil as a lever to spring himself from a shut-up schoolroom.  When he was not so visually deprived, Santiago sought to soothe himself with sights of his picturesque surroundings:

Fortunately, I found great consolation in the cultivation of art and in the contemplation of nature.  Before the grandeur of the tremendous mountains which surround the historic city on the Aragon I forgot my humiliations, discouragements, and sorrows [ibid, 60].

The untameable “Ramón” appeared to be a lost cause.  (Like many boys, he was addressed at school by the family name of his father).

"Marina"| 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 ©.

The friars decreed that he would never be a scholar.  They threatened him with explusion.

The boy stopped going to school altogether.

At the beginning of 1864, Don Justo at last agreed to transfer his son to the Institute at Huesca, in the ancient historical capital of the kingdom of Aragon.  There was an art school there.  Not yet a teenager, Santiago was afforded a measure of liberty.  Once his father left him, his first free act was to purchase paper and a box of paints.  He remembers:

I painted whatever charmed my eyes.  The pages of my sketch book were filled with drawings of rocks and trees, sprays of wild flowers, butterflies is showy liveries, and brooks gliding among pebbles, rushes, and white water lilies [ibid, 92].

But Santiago did not always apply his skills so innocently.  In the third term of his course at Huesca he circulated devastating caricatures of a detested professor of Greek, earning him the ire of the faculty and of his father.

"Girl"| 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 ©.

In 1866, determined to “eradicate [his son's] artistic inclinations entirely”[ibid, 120], Don Justo apprenticed his teenage son to a stern shoemaker in Gurrea de Gállego, where the family was living.  Despite the strictest sensory constraints, as soon as he finished supper Santiago “spent [his] time giving form and life to the jumble of stains on the wall and the cobwebs of the ceiling, which [he] transformed, by the power of thought, into the wings of a magic stage, across which filed the cavalcade of my fantasies”[ibid, 121].  His brain generated pictures from faint or even nonexistent stimuli.  This visual acuity was one of the special gifts of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.  One way or another, he was bound to use it.  But even Cajal himself—at fourteen-years-old—would never have imagined what trails he would one day be blazing.

After a year of this harsh vocational punishment, Don Justo believed that his son was finally”cured of [his] artistic madness”[ibid, 129].  Adolescent Santiago promised to behave as long as he could take a drawing class, and Don Justo finally relented.  Always energetic and industrious, Santiago fervently dedicated himself to learning to draw.  After three months, he had exhausted the lithographic library at his school.  An impressed teacher, Don León, encouraged the boy.  The man even tried to convince Don Justo of the ability and potential of his son.  But Don Justo would simply not allow it.  His son was not to be a professional artist.

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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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