Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 170 years of excellence

May 1 marked the 170th anniversary of the birth of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the most important scientist, more universal, of the history of Spanish science, the only one that can rub shoulders – with the nuances that each one wants to add – with the greats of science of all time.

If some of those who read these lines tend to think that what I am saying is, at least in part, the result of some kind of patriotism tending to exaggeration, I will quote a letter that the Dutchman Cornelius Ubbo Ariëns Kappers, director of the Neurological Research Institute of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, wrote (in French) to Cajal on March 23, 1921: “Dear and great teacher: Your letter of March 15 has given me great satisfaction, for which I thank you with all my heart. I am also grateful to him for having sent me the admirable collection of his ‘Works of him’. No, I am not missing any volumes and I am proud that my Institute has received them from you yourself, the greatest neurologist that has existed and probably never will exist.

Nervous system

The contribution for which Cajal is and will be remembered deals with the structure of the nervous system. Most of the neurologists of his time believed in the so-called “reticular theory”, initially formulated by the German anatomicalist Joseph von Gerlach, who found his main defender in the Italian Camilo Golgi, the same Golgi that he would share with Cajal. the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1906. According to this theory, all the fibers of the nervous system would unite and fuse in the gray matter of the brain, forming a network or reticulum through which the nerve impulse would be transmitted.

The episodes of the life of Ramón y Cajal resemble a kaleidoscope that offers images as they rotate
our looks

But Cajal, using and improving the cell staining method that Golgi had introduced, demonstrated around 1888 that nerve cells are independent units, which are related to each other through contacts between their dendrites (short extensions of tree shapes that receive impulses) with the axons (long extensions that lead nerve impulses from one cell body to another) of other similar cells; that is, contrary to what the reticularists defended, the nervous impulse passes from one cell to another by contact, and not by continuity, being an electric current and some chemical compounds the vehicles of these connections.

Years later, and with the help of a Cambridge Hellenist, Arthur Verrall, the physiologist Charles Scott Sherrington called the point of synapse (from the Greek syn, meaning “together”, and haptein, “joining”) a synapse. Contact between “neurons”, the neologism introduced in 1891 by the German pathologist Heinrich Wilhelm Gottfried Waldeyer to name the nerve cell. It is estimated that the number of synapses in the human brain is 1,000,000,000,000,000!

Spanish in science

If Ramón y Cajal has overcome the oblivion associated with the passage of time, it is, of course, because of his science, but his biography, the episodes of his lifehis very varied interests, the personal relationships he maintained, resemble a kaleidoscope that offers different images as our gazes “turn”.

To celebrate this anniversary, I have chosen to recall an aspect directly related to a currently highly debated issue: the limited use of Spanish in science. I know that, if it ever happens, it will be a long time before English declines as a lingua franca of science, but if there were any chance of reversing such a situation in favor of Spanishan inexorable condition –necessary but not sufficient– would be through extraordinary scientific contributions, comparable, in whatever field, to those of Cajal.

The admiration of Retzius

I will quote, in this sense, a letter that the Swedish neuroscientist Gustav Magnus Retzius – who made notable contributions to the embryology, physiology and descriptive anatomy of the nervous system– he wrote to Cajal on May 14, 1896 (in German in the original): “Dear colleague and friend: I have just received volume I of the Micrographic Quarterly Magazine, which you have sent me and for which I cordially thank. With this new publication I see that you have started the edition of a new magazine. It is a great company with which he undoubtedly intends to give a new impetus to Spanish science. You have done another great service to your country, for which I cordially congratulate you. For us, poor foreigners, it poses a certain difficulty: being able to read the Spanish language correctly. Knowing the Latin and French languages ​​that we study at school, it is not impossible for us to understand and study Spanish as well. Some time ago I bought a Spanish dictionary to read his works. From time to time difficulties are encountered, but they are not insurmountable.”

Cajal, a fervent Spanish patriotmust have felt very satisfied that a great scientist like Retzius was making an effort to learn Spanish (the same thing happened with Albert Kölliker, the most notable histologist of his time).

memories of a language

But he was aware of the decline of Spanish in science, and in his memoirs, memories of my life (which Crítica reissued in 2006), immediately after mentioning Kölliker and Retzius, wrote: “For Spain, the loss of some of the aforementioned wise men constituted a true national mourning; because they were precisely the ones who took the trouble to study Spanish and took a benevolent and sometimes ardent interest in the discoveries that emerged from our laboratory. The vast majority of current biologists do not know the language of Cervantes. It is therefore not surprising that, when consulting the most recent works on Neurology, we recognize, with regret, that two thirds of the modern contributions of the Spaniards are absolutely unknown. Where one of the most urgent tasks of our young researchers must consist of translate into English, French or German the most essential of the facts discovered in our country, many of which have been rediscovered, by exotic authors unfamiliar with our language, ten, fifteen and even twenty years after they appeared in Spain”.

It is no longer necessary that achievements be “rediscovered” – when or if they occur – of Spanish scientists. And this for the simple reason that they write in English. Inevitable, yes, but one cannot help but feel a certain sadness.

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Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 170 years of excellence