Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934) was a pioneering Spanish neuroanatomist who, over the course of five decades, combined cutting-edge scientific research with consummate draftsmanship to create groundbreaking drawings of the human brain and other nerve tissues. In 1906, Cajal was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his assertion that the brain is composed of individual neuron cells rather than a single continuous network. Confirmed by electron microscopy in the 1950s, Cajal’s theories form the foundation of neuroscience today.
As a teenager, Cajal studied at a provincial art academy before acquiescing to his father’s wishes and enrolling in medical school. His understanding of the persuasive power of images is revealed in the intricate drawings he created to introduce and circulate his revolutionary discoveries. In them, he illustrated the inner workings of the nervous system, the connection between the brain and the retina, and the development of a living, maturing brain over time. Working freehand, Cajal summarized what he saw under the microscope rather than making exact copies. In a single sketch, he combined observations he had made at different times or obtained using various methods, thus illustrating a larger hypothesis. As a result, Cajal’s depictions often put forth basic principles or a series of events much more clearly than photographs.
Most of the eighty works featured here are on view for the first time outside his native Spain, and all are generously lent by the Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid. While Cajal has not yet achieved the universal recognition of other 19th-century scientists such as Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur, his impact has been just as momentous—so much so that his drawings are still in widespread use today, in classrooms, textbooks, lectures, conferences, and medical journals. As a testament to both Cajal’s roots in earlier anatomical study and his enduring legacy, The Beautiful Brain also features historic medical volumes, a vintage microscope, and a selection of contemporary computer-aided images and video animations about the brain.