Photo Essays

The Dynamic Brain Drawings of the Father of Modern Neuroscience

A publication from Abrams Books and a traveling exhibit currently at the Weisman Art Museum highlight the medical illustrations of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

The labyrinth of the inner ear (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)

Santiago Ramón y Cajal wanted to be an artist and photographer, but his physician father encouraged him to go into the medical profession. Even working in neuroscience, the Spaniard’s interest in visual art ended up proving essential, and his illustrations continue to appear in textbooks and medical literature. The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, out now from Abrams Books, accompanies a traveling exhibition that opened this January at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota and was organized with the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain. Both the book and the show concentrate on 80 visualizations of the human brain by Cajal, often ordained the “father of modern neuroscience.”

Cover of The Beautiful Brain (courtesy Abrams Books)

Cajal’s drawings depict everything from the cerebral cortex to the hippocampus, and some have not been previously published outside of his scholarly papers. The scientist, who died in 1934, wrote in his autobiography:

Like the entomologist in pursuit of brightly colored butterflies, my attention hunted, in the flower garden of the gray matter [the cerebral cortex], cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may someday — who knows? — clarify the secret of mental life.

Cajal was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906, yet he remains obscure compared to 19th-century scientists such as Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur. Neuroscientist Larry W. Swanson writes in a book essay that this may be “because there is no simple means to encapsulate how Cajal and his contemporaries explained and illustrated the workings of the brain as a biological network in an entirely new way, a way that remains foundational to neuroscientists today.” Indeed, not every viewer will understand how he was able to discern the information flow of neurons in the retina just by studying specimens through a microscope, but with their clean lines and directional indications, the illustrations are visually striking.

Self-portrait taken by Cajal in his library when he was in his 30s (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)

“That Cajal’s drawings remain living documents a century after they were created is at least partly owing to this vitality, which draws on fantasy and the imagination more than we might expect in scientific project,” write Lyndel King and Eric Himmel in a collaborative book essay. “Cajal’s forms are drawn with clarity, though never mechanically, and his line is confident and constantly moving: Dendrites and axons, the brain’s wiring, seem to pulse with life, twisting and turning and bulging and narrowing.”

Over five decades, Cajal made more than 2,900 drawings of the nervous system. His illustrations are so intricate that it’s easy to forget he was working from dead tissue rather than a living organ. Decades later, when we can examine more accurate scans of the brain, his work still conveys a prescient view of its inner workings. If the human individual resides anywhere in the body, it’s in this organ, and Cajal’s art gives humanity to anatomy while also portraying it with scientific precision.

Self-portrait taken by Cajal in his laboratory in Valencia when he was in his early 30s (1885) (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)
Pages from The Beautiful Brain (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)
Dendrites of pyramidal neurons of the rabbit cerebral cortex (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)
Astrocytes in the hippocampus of the human brain (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)
Pages from The Beautiful Brain (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Cells in the retina of the eye (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)
Calyces of Held in the nucleus of the trapezoid body (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)
Neurons in the cerebral cortex (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)
Pages from The Beautiful Brain (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Injured Purkinje neurons of the cerebellum (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)
Four self-portraits taken by Cajal when he was 34 years old (1886) (courtesy Instituto Cajal del Consjo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, © 2017 CSIC)

The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal is out now from Abrams Books. The exhibition continues at the Weisman Art Museum (University of Minnesota, 333 E River Road, Minneapolis) through May 21.

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