The strange science fiction of Santiago Ramón y Cajal
11 March 2007
The stories condemn useless rhetoric and unquestioning obedience, the qualities Cajal found most inimical to
Few scientists who admire neurobiologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s extraordinary drawings of neurons know that early in his career, he wrote science fiction. Cajal’s Vacation Stories, written in 1885-86 and published in 1905, explore the ethical consequences of what was then cutting-edge science: bacteriology, artificial insemination, photography, and the power of suggestion. Those who have read Cajal’s Recollections of My Life and Advice for a Young Investigator know how vividly he recreates the lab atmosphere for readers, but his short stories have a creative vision and wicked humor that even these classics lack. In his first years as a scientist, Cajal used fiction to take a “vacation” from the rules of scientific writing so that he could consider the future of science.
As a boy, Cajal wanted to be an artist. Born in 1852, the son of a self-made surgeon, he grew up in poverty in a small Spanish town. He battled with his father, who was determined to make him a doctor, until he realized that he could use his powers of observation and technical skill to draw bones, muscles and cells. Cajal described himself as a visual thinker, and his capacity to envision possibilities and work through them in his mind allowed him to experiment with literature as well as science. In high school, he wrote a novel about an adventurer stranded on a desert island (Cajal, Recollections, 160). While studying medicine in the early 1870s, he modeled a second book on the science fiction of Jules Verne, describing the adventures of a man on Jupiter who entered the bloodstream of gigantic beings and witnessed “epic struggles between leucocytes and parasites” (Cajal, Recollections, 182). According to Cajal, he lost this novel, which he had personally illustrated, sometime during his military service in Spain and Cuba in 1873-75.
Of all of Cajal’s fiction, only five of his Vacation Stories have survived. After joining the faculty of medicine in Zaragoza in 1875, he began independent microscopic studies of many different tissues and moved on to a more prestigious chair of anatomy in Valencia in 1884. In 1885-86, when he wrote the Vacation Stories, he was investigating the cholera bacillus, since a cholera epidemic in northern Spain had made knowledge of this microbe a matter of life and death. Not surprisingly, most of the stories focus on the suffering and destruction that bacteria can cause, and on the easily abused power of bacteriologists.
Cajal’s first story, “For a Secret Defense, a Secret Revenge,” describes the strategy of an aging bacteriologist who suspects his young wife is having an affair with his lab assistant. After assuring himself of their guilt, based on the print-out of a seismographic device rigged to the laboratory couch, he infects the assistant with bovine tuberculosis bacillus, waits to see whether it will be transmitted to his wife and then writes up the results in a bacteriological journal. In the second story, “The Fabricator of Honor,” a famous hypnotist experiments on an entire town, telling them he has discovered a serum that will make them virtuous and carefully noting their responses. In Cajal’s favorite story, “The Accursed House,” a young doctor who has studied in Mexico buys an estate believed to be cursed because the former owner was protestant. In a battle that draws in most of the town, he struggles to prove that the strange happenings on the estate have all been the doings of harmful bacteria.
Cajal’s fourth, most creative tale, “The Corrected Pessimist,” describes the horrors of a depressed young doctor who is given the power to see the world magnified a thousand times, as though he were viewing it through a powerful microscope. Through these altered eyes, Cajal describes the streets of Madrid, paintings in the Prado Museum and, in one unforgettable passage, the skin of a young woman’s face. In the last, most didactic tale, Cajal presents a dialogue between a despairing man who describes himself as “the product of my mother and a syringe” and his resourceful friend who rose from a shepherd to a manufacturer of electrical equipment. Together, the stories advocate self-reliance and independent vision and condemn useless rhetoric and unquestioning obedience, the qualities Cajal found most inimical to science.
Originally, there were twelve Vacation Stories. Cajal published only five, waiting until his scientific reputation was securely established, and even then opting for a limited edition to be circulated among his friends. Probably, he feared that the others were so critical of the Spanish church, government and educational system that they might jeopardize his scientific career (O’Connor, 108). Given the diabolical humor, sexual innuendoes and caricatures of priests in the five that he did publish, one can only wonder what went on in the other seven. Cajal declined to give his name on the title page, calling himself “Dr. Bacteria.” Helene Tzitsikas, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Cajal’s literary works, claims that the remaining stories were lost in the Spanish Civil War, but she gives no source for her information (Tzitsikas, 29). Possibly, the stories too subversive to be published in 1905 will someday turn up in a Madrid archive.
Immediately after writing these science fiction stories, Cajal began doing the work that would make him famous: his painstaking studies of tangled processes in the retina, cerebellum and cortex. These microscopic investigations would provide the definitive histological evidence that nerve cells are independent units, not elements in a physically continuous net. For this work, which began in 1887 and continued until his death in 1934, Cajal won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1906, sharing it with the Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi who had developed the staining technique they both used.
A post hoc, propter hoc argument would do injustice to Cajal’s scientific logic, but it is possible that his “vacation” in fiction helped him to focus his mind so that he could pursue the questions he cared most about: what are the fundamental elements of the nervous system, how do they communicate with one another, and how do they give rise to consciousness? As Eric Kandel has written in his scientific autobiography, In Search of Memory, “hard thinking, especially if it leads to even one useful idea, is much more valuable than simply running more experiments” (Kandel, 162). Both science and fiction-writing are creative endeavors, and both demand the ability to construct mental models and manipulate them in one’s mind. As an artistic scientist and scientific artist, Cajal excelled at both. Like his drawings of Purkinje cells, his stories are mind-boggling, artistic renderings of reality.
Kandel, Eric. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. New York: Norton, 2006.
O’Connor, D. J. “Science, Literature, and Self-Censorship: Ramón y Cajal’s Cuentos de Vacaciones (1905).” Ideologies and Literature 1.3 (1985): 98-122.
Ramón y Cajal, Santiago. Advice for a Young Scientist. Trans. Neely Swanson and Larry W. Swanson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
Ramón y Cajal, Santiago. Cuentos de vacaciones.  Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1965.
Ramón y Cajal, Santiago. Recollections of My Life. Trans. E. Horne Craigie and Juan Cano. [1901-17] Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
Ramón y Cajal, Santiago. Vacation Stories: Five Science Fiction Tales. Trans. Laura Otis. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001,
Tzitsikas, Helene. Santiago Ramón y Cajal: Obra literaria. Colección Studium 53. México: Andrea, 1965.
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