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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Nobel Prize winner Cajal’s drawings show ‘Beautiful Brain’

Glial cells of the mouse spinal cord, 1899, ink and pencil on paper. Lent by the Instituto Cajal.


More than 100 years ago, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, whom neuroscientists consider as crucial to their discipline as Albert Einstein is to physics, made drawings of the brain that are both aesthetically astonishing and scientifically significant. “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” is the first museum exhibition to present these amazing works within their historical context.

Scientists throughout the world know Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934) as the father of the study of the structure and function of the brain, i.e., modern neuroscience.

The exhibition opened at the Ackland Museum on Jan. 25 and will be on view through April 7. 

Scientists throughout the world know Cajal (1852–1934) as the father of the study of the structure and function of the brain, i.e., modern neuroscience. One of his most important discoveries was that individual cells called neurons make up the brain (most late-19th century scientists believed that the brain was a continuous, interconnected network). All research on the brain and brain-related diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are based on Cajal’s concept of the structure of the brain. In 1906, Cajal was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on brain structure.

“This exhibition is an unprecedented opportunity to experience extraordinarily beautiful drawings by one of the giants of modern science,” said Peter Nisbet, the Ackland Museum’s deputy director for curatorial affairs. “Anyone who enjoys modern art will relish the aesthetic impact of these evocative, engaging and complex works, at the same time as learning about foundational discoveries in neuroscience. “

Cajal did not set out to be a scientist. He wanted to be an artist, but such a career path was not considered an appropriate ambition in rural Spain where he grew up. In his research, Cajal produced more than 3,000 drawings of the brain, and these detailed studies are as relevant today as they were a century ago. Their clarity and ability to express fundamental concepts about the brain have never been equaled, causing The New York Times to call the collection “one of the most unusual, ravishing exhibitions of the season.” 

Cajal’s training as an artist also informed his creation of the drawings — he made choices and aesthetic decisions, arranging forms on paper in intentional ways and highlighting certain features for emphasis.

A Brain Full of Stars, 2017, confocal micrograph. Lent by Anze Testen and Kathryn J. Reissner, UNC-Chapel Hill.

The centerpiece of “The Beautiful Brain” is 80 original drawings lent by the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain. The exhibition also includes a display of historical anatomy books going back to the 16th century (including six from Carolina’s Wilson Library) and a roomful of brightly colored digital images produced by contemporary neuroscientists (including seven made by Carolina scientists). Contemporary neuroscience imagery by modern neuroscientists provides context for Cajal’s works.

“This exhibition allows our university and community audiences to ask probing questions about the relationships between art and science, about the role of drawing in synthesizing and presenting scientific information, and about this history of scientific illustration,” Nisbet said. “It exemplifies the Ackland’s key role as a mediator and connector between the full array of Carolina departments and endeavors.”

The exhibition was organized by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota with the Cajal Institute, Spanish National Research Council, Madrid, Spain.

Support from Betsy Blackwell & John Watson and the UNC Neuroscience Center at the School of Medicine helped make the exhibition possible.