Ramon Y Cajal: Precepts and counsels in scientific investigation. Stimulants of the spirit
Author : Ramon Y Cajal
Book : Ramon Y Cajal: Precepts and counsels in scientific investigations. Stimulants of the spirit
Publishers : Moutain View, California:: Pacific Press Publishing Association
Year of publication : 1951
Type : History of medicine, Medical Research
Translated by : J Maria Sanchez Perez
Edited by : Cyril B. Courville
Dr. Cyril Courville (1900–1968) was Director of the Ramon Y Cajal Laboratory of Neuropathology in Los Angeles. One of his interests was in the history of injuries to the skull. He amassed a collection of skulls together with related weapons and protective armor. This interest resulted in a book, Injuries of the skull and brain in myth and legend (1967).
In 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno, the first Spanish presence in the “New California” (Nueva California) region of the frontier Las Californias province since Cabrillo in 1542, sailed as far north up the Pacific Coast as present-day Oregon, and named California coastal features from San Diego to as far north as the Bay of Monterrey. California, thus, forms part of New Spain. When the neuropathology laboratory of the Los Angeles County Hospital was to shift into a new building, Dr. Courville decided to honor the pioneer of metallic histology in Old Spain by naming the laboratory after him. “With some trepidation the favor was asked – and it was promptly granted. As a token of his good wishes towards the foundling laboratory, Doctor Cajal sent a number of his books for its library, all inscribed with a hand that was tremulous but still displayed a brave flourish. A second bold request for contemporary photographs to be used in the preparation of a bronze plaque and bust was also made. After considerable delay, a letter came stating that because of his enfeebled state, he had only recently been able to get to the photographers, but that the pictures would soon be forthcoming. As events proved, these portraits of the ageing scientist were his last. Shortly thereafter came the news of the death of Cajal in Madrid on October 17, 1934.
Dr. Courville tells us the manner in which this book came into being. When Dr. Cajal was appointed to the Royal Academy of Medicine in Spain in 1893, he had to present a thesis. Customarily, only the summary of the thesis was read out to the audience. Dr. Cajal was asked to read the complete text. After reading for 3 hours, Dr. Cajal stopped, assuming that politeness alone prompted the audience to continue listening. Instead, the gathering unanimously decided upon a second session so that the rest of the text could be read out! Dr. Courville rightly concluded that “since the philosophy contained in this essay has been so well received in his native country and elsewhere, there is reason to believe that it deserves wider attention.” He obtained the help of Dr. Sanchez-Perez and others to prepare an English translation that remained true to Dr. Cajal's philosophy and meaning.
Drs. Courville and Sanchez-Perez have succeeded in their mission to pass on to us the deep and moving thoughts of Dr. Cajal with a minimum of change. The spirit of Dr. Cajal, indeed, does speak to us through the pages of this book. We are indebted to Dr. Courville and Dr. Sanchez-Perez.
I cannot do better that present Dr. Courville's own summation of the contents: “To the young investigator, regardless of his particular field of scientific interest, the essay should be one of great value. It is indeed the sum of wisdom… It makes tangible the suggestions which an older investigator would likely pass on to a beginner, had he the time and ability to transform his inner cogitations and experiences into words of counsel… The precepts and recommendations to young investigators herein presented as stimulants of the spirit are ageless and applicable to every clime and circumstance – whenever and wherever the intelligence of man grapples with the unknown…”
Cajal's opening sentence in the book sets the stage for what follows: “I am assuming in the reader a certain philosophical culture and general learning by consequence of which he knows that the principal sources of knowledge are observation, experimentation and inductive and deductive reasoning.” These replace “the Aristotelian principles of intuition, inspiration and dogmatism.”
Throughout the book, Dr. Cajal reminds the reader of the need for scrupulous honesty, hard work, and an enquiring mind. Adversities and criticism were inevitable but were to be faced with equanimity. He spoke from great experience for he had carried out his own studies the hard way. With no one to guide him in his country on the study of the minute structure and function of living tissues, especially those comprising the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, he was a self-taught individual. Spain had no claim to fame in the sciences. Thanks to Cajal's labors, the world turned to Spain to learn about the neurosciences.
The table of contents does not feature dry-as-dust headings. Instead, each chapter contains its own summary here. Consider chapter 4: “What the newcomer in biological investigation should know. General culture. The need of specialization. Special or technical reading. How monographs should be studied. The absolute necessity of seeking inspiration in nature. Mastery of method. In search of new facts.”
This chapter opens with a ringing declaration: “It is needless to dwell on the need which our novice has, of knowing thoroughly the science, which is the subject of his future explorations not only through descriptions in books and monographs but through the study of nature itself.” He provides an example. “The biologist will not limit himself to knowing anatomy and physiology but will also grasp the fundamentals of psychology, physics, and chemistry.” (We must remember that this book was written in 1893.) He cautioned against starting off with a doctrine of creed rather than with the criteria of truth and critical judgment. He quoted Cicero's modification of Abelard's saying: “By doubting indeed we come to the inquiry; and by inquiring, we perceive the truth.”
Or take Chapter 8: “On the writing of scientific papers. Justification for scientific communications. Bibliography. Justice and courtesy in decision. Exposition of methods. Publication of scientific works.” When you turn to page 150, the start of this chapter quotes the advice offered by Mr. Billings, “a learned Washington librarian burdened by the task of classifying thousands of pamphlets – 1. Have something to say. 2. Say it. 3. Stop once it is said. 4. Give the article a suitable title and order of arrangement.” Cajal felt that this recommendation was “very applicable in Spain, a country which is a classic example of hyperbole and pompous exposition.” (Is this lesson equally applicable in 21st century India?)
(Dr. John Shaw Billings worked in the Office of the Surgeon General in America and was in charge of the library. It was his goal to make the library as complete as possible. In the course of his work, he created the Index Catalog, the Index Medicus, and an interlibrary loan system. In 1885, he lobbied Congress for a larger library. The National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland is, in a very real sense, his brainchild. Billings died in 1913.)
Cajal pointed out that we must justify publication of our findings as it may be read by scholars whose duties do not permit waste of time on mere rhetorical dissertations. He also denounced texts published “not with the intention of shedding new light on a subject but of displaying the eloquence of the writer, who is willing to get through the arduous obligation of writing in any slipshod manner – and the longer the better … without taking the trouble to think…”
Cajal's prose rises to inspiring and even poetic heights in places, as when he discloses the real purpose of science. “Aside from the hypertrophy of the feeling of self-esteem… the conquest of a new truth without doubt constitutes the greatest venture to which man can aspire. The cajoleries of vanity, the effusions of instinct, the caresses of fortune pale before the supreme pleasure of experiencing how the wings of the spirit issue forth and develop … The man of science defies injustice… The regard which the world has for power, for aspirations or for money is not the prime object of the aspirations of the investigator for he feels within himself a nobility superior to that capriciously granted by blind fortune or by the good humor of rulers. The nobility of which he is proud with as much reason as he is of his own work consists in his being a minister of progress, a priest of truth and a confidant of the Creator.”
Discussing the role of patient and his tenacious observations in discovering truths, he referred to serendipity and provided the examples of Scheele stumbling upon chlorine whilst trying to isolate manganese and the work of Roentgen and Becquerel. “And this brings me to say something about chance in the realm of scientific investigation… Chance does not smile upon him who merely wishes it, but upon him who deserves it.” (He reminds us of Pasteur's statement “Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.” – In the fields of observation, chance only favors the prepared mind.)
There are innumerable examples of his acerbic wit throughout the book. Discussing the fate of investigators in nations that do not honor learning and enquiry, he pointed out that “in science, a field of austere discipline, the defender must be both wise and learned, and the wise do not abound in countries of insufficient culture!”
He was more than justified in harboring ruffled feelings. Copies of his early papers sent to Spanish colleagues were received in silence. Cajal even suffered the mortification of seeing in the subsequent writings of his colleagues, statements entirely contrary to facts he had demonstrated. He saw a mistrust of his discoveries in Spain while histologists in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Vienna were beginning to take notice.
The final chapter is entitled The investigator as a teacher. Interestingly, Dr. Cajal does not provide us a summary here in the table of contents. Let us, therefore turn to the chapter itself.
Here, he asks and answers two queries that trouble so many of us even today. “How to train disciples capable of carrying on and, better still, to encourage geniuses capable of surpassing the master…?” and “How is an irresistible affinity for science created?” I shall leave you to read the answers.
Two final quotations: “The greatest honor that can come to the master lies not in molding pupils to follow him but in producing scholars who will surpass him. The highest ideal would be to create absolutely new spirits, unique adjuncts if possible to the machine of progress…”
And on the subject of the second career: “When his weak hands can no longer swing the miner's pick, he can occupy himself with refining the material recovered by others. And let him write the history or philosophy of science in the quietude of his retirement. No one can expound on it better than he who has lived its incidents and closely felt its arduous … difficulties.”