Subject: biography, biology
Spanish histologist whose research revealed that the nervous system is based on units of nerve cells (neurons). For his discovery he shared the 1906 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with the Italian cytologist and histologist Camillo Golgi.
Ramón y Cajal was born on 1 May 1852, in Petilla de Aragón, Spain, the son of a country doctor. At the insistence of his father he studied medicine at the University of Zaragoza, but he took little interest in the course other than in anatomy. He qualified in 1873 and then joined the army medical service, which sent him to Cuba. There he caught malaria and was discharged; he returned to Zaragoza and obtained a doctorate in anatomy in 1877. In 1884 he was appointed professor of descriptive anatomy at the University of Valencia and in 1887 he took up the histology professorship at the University of Barcelona. From 1892 to 1921 he served at the University of Madrid as professor of histology and pathological anatomy, becoming director of the new Instituto Nacional de Higiene in 1900. In 1921 he retired from the university to become director of the Cajal Institute in Madrid, founded in his honour by King Alfonso XIII, and retained this position until he died, in Madrid, on 17 October 1934.
When Ramón y Cajal commenced his research, the path of a nervous impulse was unknown. In his investigations he used potassium dichromate and silver nitrate to stain sections of embryonic tissue, improving on the procedure developed by Golgi.
By this means he demonstrated that the axons of nerve cells end in the grey matter of the central nervous system and never join the endings of other axons or the cell bodies of other nerve cells. He considered that these findings indicate that the nervous system consists entirely of independent units and is not a network as was previously thought. In 1897 Ramón y Cajal investigated the human cerebral cortex using methylene blue (also used by Paul Ehrlich) as well as Golgi's silver nitrate stain. He described several types of nerve cells and demonstrated that there were distinct structural patterns in different parts of the cerebral cortex. His findings indicated that structure might well be related to the localization of a particular function to a specific area. In 1903 he found that silver nitrate stained structures within the cell body, which he identified as neurofibrils, and that the cell body itself was concerned with conduction.
During his years at Madrid University, Ramón y Cajal concerned himself with the generation and degeneration of nerve fibres. He demonstrated that when a nerve fibre regenerates it does so by growing from the stump of the fibre still connected with the cell body. In 1913 he developed a gold sublimate to stain nerve structures, which is now valuable in the study of tumours of the central nervous system.
Modern neurology has its foundations in Ramón y Cajal's meticulous work because his investigations are the basis of modern understanding of the part played by the nerve cell in the nervous function, and of the nervous impulse. He published numerous scientific papers and books, among them the classic Structure of the Nervous System of Man and Other Vertebrates (1904) and The Degeneration and Regeneration of the Nervous System (1913-14).
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