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Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Spain is very proud of Nobel laureate Ramón y Cajal. He was closely associated with the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, where I lived. His death in 1934 was a day of national mourning. He was important not only as a neuroscientist but as an educational leader, and indeed as a man of letters. He was elected to the Academy of Sciences. I cannot evaluate his work as a scientist, but I certainly can as a writer.
As a devotee of faction, of which biography and autobiography are important elements, I gave courses on them regularly at Stanford. One of my favorite books was Santiago Ramón y Cajal's Mi infancia y juventud, in which he tells the remarkable story of his early life. Born in an Aragonese village, he was a young trouble-maker, landing once in jail. He studied medicine at the University of Saragossa, the state of which may be judged from the fact that anatomy was taught with cardboard skeletons.
He was sent to Cuba to fight in the 1898 war. He gives an account of the experiences of a Spanish common soldier. Americans know the war only from the American viewpoint. Few know anything about the Cuban viewpoint, and virtually none have any idea of the Spanish experience, which led to the important Generation of '98. The war wounded the Spanish psyche, and this must be born in mind today. (See the accompanying posting on the visit of King Juan Carlos to Cuba).
He told the later story of his life in his two-volume memoirs and in his account of his view of life at age 80. He was born in 1851, so he was 80 in 1931, just the year the monarchy was overthrown and Ramón y Cajal's liberal friends came to power. He wrote stories and a book about Don Quijote. As a writer, he would have been ignored by the outside world, which has the crazy idea that García Lorca is the most important Spanish writer of the period.
It is of course as a scientist that he is world-famous. This year marks the centennial of the publication of his most important scientific work, Textura del sistema nervioso del hombre y de los vertebrados, which deals with consciousness. a topic hotly debated today. The University of Saragossa will hold an international conference on it from November 29 to December 1. The program is studded with the names of significant scientists, and the organizing committee includes two Santiago Ramón y Cajal, presumably the son and grandson of the great scientist.
Finally, a personal note. The committee which awarded me a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship included a physician who in the interview asked me about Ramón y Cajal. My answer pleased him, even though I corrected his Spanish pronunciation. Perhaps I owe to Ramón y Cajal the fact that I am in California today.
Ronald Hilton - 11/15/99