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A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Artist

[ 1 ] July 1, 2010 | Ben Ehrlich

"Naufragio"| 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 1934, the year of Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s death, his brother Pedro—a fellow neuroanatomist at the University of Zaragoza and a former rabblerousing playmate during school days—delivered a eulogy filled with priceless childhood remembrances.  He recognized the central conflict between his father and Santiago, and perfectly explained the resolution:  “My brother entered into the castle of science and, despite all his honors, never betrayed his artistic inclinations; he entered through the door of art, for it is no coincidence that Minerva is the goddess of both the sciences and the arts.”  Cajal himself once remarked that “only true artists are attracted to science”[ibid, 28.  My translation].  His career is proof of the freedom and independence that moves the truest geniuses.  His portrait is as distinctly individual as the neuron, which he correctly identified.

* * * * *

Art may imitate life and life may imitate art, but why not dismiss this chicken-and-egg silliness and observe the simple fact that life imitates life.  Life imitates life.  It reads like a redundant and unremarkable statement until we consider some essential samenesses that it suggests.  After all, evolution cannot cook from scratch.  What exists is a template for what may come to exist, and time-tested traces of the old are forever conserved in the adapted new.  If nothing else, science offers the humanities a vast narrative throughout deep time with recurring patterns and related characters.  There are ways in which the story of each life will always imitate every other.  Birth will always preceed death in the chronology of the individual.  Along the winding course of whatever length of time flows in-between those two events, organisms are undergoing constant development.  Both Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the neuron he defined are revealed through illustration of their early stages, before increasing complexity confuses the portrait, when each is reaching to achieve its mature—yet still plastic—identity. •


I would like to thank Maria Angelines Ramón y Cajal and the inheritors of the Santiago Ramón y Cajal estate ©.  I would also like to thank Ignacio Torres Alemán, director of the Instituto Cajal (CSIC).  I would particularly like to acknowledge Javier DeFelipe, Miguel Freire, Juan de Carlos, and Pablo Garcia-Lopez for their personal assistance.  Moreover I must acknowledge Brian Boyd, Laura Otis, and Keith Oatley for being responsive to me in the fall, while I was developing my interests.  This was quite meaningful.  I am also grateful to Valeria Bonasorte and Leslie Day for their kindness and enthusiasm.  Finally, I wish to express gratitude for my chief editor Marilyn Weinstein Ehrlich (who also happens to be my chief mother) and my chief father Alex Ehrlich (who gave me edits as well).  And Noah Hutton.




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Comments (1)

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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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