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More than a century ago, a series of drawings transformed how scientists understood the brain. Spanish scientist and artist Santiago Ramon y Cajal captured the anatomy of nerve cells in unprecedented detail. Many of Cajal's images are so beautiful that an art museum in Minneapolis has organized a traveling exhibition of his work. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: What Einstein did for physics, Ramon y Cajal did for neuroscience.
LARRY SWANSON: Before Cajal, it was just completely different.
HAMILTON: Larry Swanson is a brain scientist at the University of Southern California.
SWANSON: Most of the neuroscientists in the mid-19th century thought that the nervous system was organized almost like a fishing net.
HAMILTON: They thought it was a single, continuous web, not a collection of separate cells. Swanson says Cajal's vision of the brain challenged the conventional wisdom.
SWANSON: Cajal looked under the microscope at different parts of the brain and said, you know what? It's not like a fishing net. There are individual units called nerve cells or neurons that are put together in chains to form circuits.
HAMILTON: Cajal didn't just take notes about what he saw. He made sketches, extraordinary sketches. As a young man, Cajal had planned to be an artist. His father, who was a doctor, wanted his son to study medicine. So Cajal did, but he also began sketching what he saw during dissections and autopsies and later through the lens of a microscope. Swanson says when Cajal began to focus on the brain, he discovered a whole new world.
SWANSON: There are hundreds of different shapes, like trees, like plants, and so they have really beautiful designs.
HAMILTON: Cajal won a Nobel Prize in 1906. His work later helped scientists figure out everything from how neurons communicate to how diseases like Alzheimer's disrupt the brain. And Swanson says Cajal's drawings are so clear and accurate that they still appear in neuroscience textbooks.
SWANSON: The model of the nerve cell that everybody still learns is the one that Cajal laid out in the 1890s.
HAMILTON: Even so, Cajal is relatively unknown outside of scientific circles. Lyndel King, director of the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, says she'd never heard of him when she was approached by two brain scientists from the University of Minnesota. King says the scientists proposed an exhibition of Cajal's drawings.
LYNDEL KING: I looked at some of them in books and I said, wow, yes. We are going to do this. They're beautiful, beautiful drawings. They're scientific drawings, but they're art at the same time.
HAMILTON: It took years to arrange the event with the Cajal Institute in Madrid and the Spanish government. And King says choosing the drawings was hard because artists and scientists see things differently.
KING: They might say oh, this drawing is absolutely really important scientifically, and I would say, yeah, but it's really dull visually. It's not aesthetically appealing.
HAMILTON: Eventually they agreed on 80 drawings for an exhibition called "The Beautiful Brain." There's a companion book with the same title. King says Cajal's images evoke much more than brain anatomy.
KING: I particularly like one of the glial cells of the cerebral cortex of a child. And to me, it looks like fireworks, the Fourth of July, all the little cells with all their dendrites.
HAMILTON: King says the drawings offer an example of how art contributes to science.
KING: Drawing is a way of thinking, and Cajal made these drawings as part of his thinking through his theories about the brain.
HAMILTON: Theories that were shown to be correct decades after his death. The Cajal exhibition opens this weekend in Minneapolis and will eventually travel to other cities. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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