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Vol. LXVI, No. 25
December 5, 2014
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Artist, ‘Father of Neuroscience’
Nobelist Cajal’s Drawings Now on Exhibit at NIH

On the front page...

Shown Nov. 7 cutting the ribbon on the new exhibit are (from l) NINDS acting director Dr. Walter Koroshetz, Dr. Ricardo Martinez-Murillo, vice director of Spain’s Cajal Institute, which loaned the art to NIH, and NINDS senior investigator Dr. Jeffrey Diamond.
Shown Nov. 7 cutting the ribbon on the new exhibit are (from l) NINDS acting director Dr. Walter Koroshetz, Dr. Ricardo Martinez-Murillo, vice director of Spain’s Cajal Institute, which loaned the art to NIH, and NINDS senior investigator Dr. Jeffrey Diamond.
Since their once-in-a-lifetime trip to view the collected works of Spanish scientist-artist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, NIH senior investigator Dr. Jeffrey Diamond and former NIH artist-in-residence Rebecca Kamen have been anxious to share some of Cajal’s original art with a larger audience. Their diligence paid off recently when 7 drawings by the Father of Modern Neuroscience traveled to the United States to be exhibited in the Porter Neuroscience Research Center.

“Everyone—at least everyone involved in science—knows that science is a creative process,” explained Diamond, an art aficionado who, as a neuroscientist in NINDS’s synaptic physiology section, studies the retina.

“These drawings by Cajal, who was an artist, anatomist and is considered the father of modern neuroscience, will be inspiring to the scientists who work here. There’s a huge educational component to this.”

Continued...

In March 2012, Diamond—a longtime Cajal enthusiast—was invited to Madrid to give a scientific lecture at the Cajal Institute (CI), the oldest neurobiology research center in Spain. At NIH on a fellowship around the same time, Kamen was also offered an opportunity to visit CI—home to a vault archiving Cajal’s research, drawings, paintings, scientific files and papers.

In one of his most famous drawings, currently on display at NIH, Santiago Ramon y Cajal sketched a comparison of competing ideas about the composition of the nervous system. a visitor takes in the new exhibit as Diamond gives remarks at the opening. A Cajal micrograph image forms the gallery’s floor.

In one of his most famous drawings, currently on display at NIH, Santiago Ramon y Cajal sketched a comparison of competing ideas about the composition of the nervous system. In the late 19th century, many scientists, including the great Italian neuroanatomist Camillo Golgi, contended that the nervous systerm was a continuous mesh, or reticulum (designated “I,” at left in the drawing above). Cajal’s observations led him to postulate that the nervous system contained discrete cells contacting each other at precise points later termed synapses (“II,” right column). Cajal used a staining technique developed by Golgi to prove his rival wrong. They later shared the 1906 Nobel prize.

At right, a visitor takes in the new exhibit as Diamond gives remarks at the opening. A Cajal micrograph image forms the gallery’s floor.

“My interest—the retina of the eye—was one of his favorite topics,” Diamond said. “The connection was immediate.”

Sculptor Rebecca Kamen stands beside “Butterflies of the Soul,” which she says “interprets the development of modern neuroscience” and was inspired by a quotation from Cajal.

Sculptor Rebecca Kamen stands beside “Butterflies of the Soul,” which she says “interprets the development of modern neuroscience” and was inspired by a quotation from Cajal.

Exhibit Photos: Bill Branson

On the floor beneath the drawings, visitors will encounter photographic “tiles” that reproduce details of tissue slides that Cajal prepared. The neuron cell structures appear exactly as Cajal viewed them.

Hank Grasso (l), exhibition content developer with the Office of NIH History, joins Koroshetz, Martinez-Murillo and Diamond at the Cajal gallery opening.

Top: On the floor beneath the drawings, visitors will encounter photographic “tiles” that reproduce details of tissue slides that Cajal prepared. The neuron cell structures appear exactly as Cajal viewed them.

Bottom: Hank Grasso (l), exhibition content developer with the Office of NIH History, joins Koroshetz, Martinez-Murillo and Diamond at the Cajal gallery opening.

Born in Spain in 1852, Cajal revealed his scientific genius early in artwork he did as a child, said Kamen, who gave a lecture on her neuroscience-inspired art during the same CI visit.

“It was obvious in that 8-year-old’s painting that the seeds for his scientific discoveries were already planted,” she said. “Really good scientists and really good artists are both very intuitive. It was incredible that someone that young could see and record what he did at that age…before electron microscopes, before all of the modern technological advances we have now.”

A local artist whose interests in the intersection of art and science span chemistry, physics, astrophysics and now neuroanatomy, Kamen said after Diamond shared some of Cajal’s images with her, she was instantly inspired. She immediately began her own study of his life and work.

As a youngster, she noted, Cajal apparently intended to pursue art as a career, but was steered—forcefully—by his anatomy teacher father into science and medicine. Excelling in both fields, Cajal eventually developed highly intricate and precise techniques for staining tissues of the brain—and illustrating its connections.

“Cajal was able to show beautiful, elegant structures of individual neurons and link the structure of those neurons to their function,” Diamond said.

His advances in neuroanatomy, brain pathology and developments defining the nervous system led Cajal to provide evidence of “neuron doctrine,” which is the basis for modern neuroscience. Cajal shared (with Italian pathologist Camillo Golgi of “Golgi stain” renown) the 1906 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

As they toured the institute named for Cajal and saw his original work firsthand, Diamond and Kamen said they knew they had to find a way to get some of the drawings back to the Porter Neuroscience Research Center, which at the time was still under construction. In addition they had to convince the folks at CI to share their national treasures.

“At first they were a little skeptical of the idea, I think,” recalled Diamond. “I wasn’t sure the drawings had ever left Spain, much less traveled to the U.S. But after about 2 days and after the talks we gave, they could see how serious we were. They became very enthusiastic about lending some of the work to NIH.”

It also didn’t hurt that Kamen crafted a miniature version of one of her Cajal-inspired sculptures—“Butterflies of the Soul”—and hand-carried it on the plane as a gift to the CI.

The largest of Kamen’s sculptures installed with the Cajal exhibit is “The Measure of All Things.”
The largest of Kamen’s sculptures installed with the Cajal exhibit is “The Measure of All Things.”

“Between the two of us, I think we were pretty persuasive,” she joked. Nearly 2½years—and many untold logistical maneuvers—later, the exhibit is finally a reality. In addition, Kamen installed several of her neuroscience-inspired pieces in the Porter Bldg., alongside the Cajal drawings.

“It’s an honor to be in the same collection with his work,” she said.

The Cajal exhibit at PNRC, developed and sponsored by NIH’s Office of NIH History in the Office of Intramural Research, will be open through April.

 


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