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Black and white drawing of veins.

19th-Century Illustrations Of The Human Brain As It Really Is: Precious


One of the fathers of modern neurology left, in addition to his scientific work, some of the most beautiful illustrations of the human brain.

His images are familiar to anyone who’s studied, even slightly, the structures of the human brain. Delicate branches of cells, with a bit of metaphor, appear like leafy trees, exotic fruits or bushes with strange, intricate silhouettes. Ramón Cajal (1852-1934), the Spanish physician and winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, is also the creator of a series of illustrations that have reached a level of art in their profound beauty, simplicity, and elegance.

Over five decades of work, Cajal made about 2,900 illustrations of delicate neurons and other parts of the human nervous system. These allowed him to reach two fundamental conclusions on the nature of the cerebral anatomy. First, the organ is composed of individual cells called neurons which are structurally different from the cells of other anatomical systems. Second, the nerve impulses transmitted by these cells are capable of connecting distant areas of the brain in ways of which no other cells would be capable.

For his work, Cajal shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with the Italian, Camillo Golgi, who invented a system for the dying of tissue. This system allowed Cajal to observe individual neurons, and then, of course, to draw them. This happened years before other scientists would corroborate Cajal’s theories. For this, both researchers are considered two of the fathers of modern neuroscience.

In spite of their obvious scientific purposes, the drawings of Ramón Cajal, like those of the great Ernst Haeckel, inhabit two worlds simultaneously. Their importance is to the study of the natural world, but also to that unforeseen part of the universe in the visual arts. Only an artist could have created these elegant universes in human cells. Cajal, in fact, enjoyed drawing as a child. He earned his a medical degree to please his father, also a doctor.

Sometimes trees, ferns, landscapes or monochrome flowers, the images of Ramón Cajal can also be geometric or Martian landscapes. They’re the creations of a scientist who always carried an artist inside himself. He worked within that eccentric, beautiful place in life where science becomes a work of art.

Triptych of black and white brain illustrations.

Signed 19th-Century print of nerve endings.

Colour illustration of the brain.

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