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A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Artist

[ 1 ] July 1, 2010 | Ben Ehrlich

"Desnudo"| 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 ©.

Of course, the great achievements of Santiago Ramón y Cajal do not belong to the category of traditional arts, however arbitrarily defined.  But his persistent creative process, which never ceased to develop, was directed and affected elsewhere.  Cajal the drawer or the painter would most certainly have been lost to oblivion.  But during the summer of 1868—the year of his first romantic love and “The Glorious Revolution” in Spain—something happened to sixteen-year old Santiago.  It was then that the fiery teenager was introduced to the study of anatomy by means of contact with his father.  Before microscopic advancements, the artful surgeon had to clearly understand the very complicated, very living thing he hoped to address with such sharp and decisive instruments.  One relied on visual memory to direct the hand, and so direct experience was clearly more beneficial than book learning.  Don Justo’s skill was renowned and he wished—after all—to transmit the knowledge of his own beloved trade:  dissection.  This was his key communication to his son.  For the sake of science, Don Pedro and Santiago spent summer nights raiding graveyards for human remains.

“If things are looked at in their true light,” Cajal explains honestly, “my enthusiasm for anatomy formed one of the many evidences of my tendencies; for my artistic idiosyncracy, osteology constituted one more subject for pictures”[ibid, 145].  For him, bones were just another marvelous material that nature made.  He drew them devotedly, as he had drawn all that had caught his eye.  But now his father saw that the skill of his son was good and useful.  In fact, Don Pedro was so impressed that he pushed to have the drawings published.  And so Santiago had found his calling.  He took his talent, his personality, and his will to Zaragoza to study medicine, the arena in which he became a legendary hero.  But look closely:  seeds of his every mature accomplishment were planted during his development.  His art grew into his science.

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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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