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Cajal at the Berlin Meeting, 1889


“Ramon y Cajal”, episode 7, extracted from the final 6:32 minutes;

From a multi-episode “Life of Ramon y Cajal” shown on Spanish television in 1982.


distribuido por METRO VIDEO ESPANOLA, S.L.

C/ Torres Quevedo, 1 – Parque Tecnológico de Madrid

28760 TRES CANTOS (Madrid)

Cajal's Breakthrough, 1889


I heard about the video from Juan Lermo on a visit to the Cajal Institute in the 1990s, and with his help I found it in a video store and purchased a copy. The whole series is in five video tapes. Here I’ve extracted the episode of Cajal demonstrating to the leading German anatomists his Golgi-stained neurons at the 1889 meeting of the German Anatomical Society, which shows in dramatic fashion his personal breakthrough on the world stage and the beginnings of modern studies of the nervous system at the cellular level.

The historical context for this breakthrough is explained in Foundations of the Neuron Doctrine (Shepherd, 1991). In the late 1880s Cajal published a flood of papers with his newly discovered Golgi method and sent them to the leading anatomists but no one responded. He realized his only hope was to confront them with his slides, and determined to do that at the next meeting of the German Anatomical Society in October 1889 in Berlin. Note in the video, that although Cajal did not speak German, he spoke to Kolliker in his limited French; Kolliker communicated with his colleagues in German.

The Berlin Meeting, 1889

The Spanish TV series is remarkably accurate in its representation of the Berlin meeting and of Cajal and the leading anatomists who took part; it’s as if a Spanish video team was there recording the event (!). On the first day Cajal has his slides ready but nobody shows any interest. The second day begins in the same way. Desperate, he heads directly for Albert Kolliker, the leading anatomist of that era, and pleads with him to come see his slides. Kolliker, then approaching 80, agrees. Other luminaries gather round: the bearded Waldeyer, who will formulate the Neuron Doctrine; clean-shaven Retzius of Sweden; Van Gehuchten of Belgium who with Cajal will formulate the concept of the Dynamic Polarization of the Neuron ….

Kolliker already had visited Golgi to see the new method for himself, and knew the potential but also that the impregnation was erratic. He looks through the microscope and quickly realizes he is seeing consistently beautiful Golgi impregnated nerve cells. He looks at “Cayal” in astonishment; he signals for another slide, and another. Finally, he stands and announces: “meine Herren, meine Herren … Mister Cayal has opened a new era in visualizing nerve cells”. Congratulations flow. … an orchestra swells the music … Cajal realizes he has achieved his dream …modern neuroscience is launched.

GM Shepherd, 10-3-2019