Artist’s drawings bridge the worlds of art and science. He was ahead of his time.

This story was corrected at Feb. 3 at 4:45 p.m. See story for details.

In the early 20th century, neuroscience technology wasn’t like it is today. There weren’t MRI images or digital scans to help scientists further their research or doctors to diagnose patients.

But Santiago Ramón y Cajal of Spain was able to draw and predict almost the exact make-up of the brain at this time, without any of the technology that we use today.

More than his scientific accuracy, Cajal was an artist, with his drawings considered a form of art, in addition to serving as learning tools for neuroscientists around the world.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Untitled (self portrait), c. 1885.

Those drawings are now on display in the exhibit, “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal,” at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The exhibit opened Jan. 25 and runs through April 7.

Cajal, often referred to as the father of modern neuroscience, was born in 1852 in rural Spain. He drew over 3,000 drawings in his lifetime, most of them of the brain and brain functions. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906.

The museum is one of a handful in the United States to showcase the exhibit, which Peter Nisbet, the Ackland’s Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, said “celebrates these aesthetically beautiful drawings.”

“The 80 drawings by him are at the center of the exhibit,” Nisbet said. “It also looks back in history at the event with about a dozen historical anatomical textbooks going back to the 1500s to see, how in previous times, people represented the brain. And then, there’s also elements of the presentation about contemporary images of the brain through neuroscience digital images of the brain.”

The University of Minnesota organized the exhibition with officials contacting Nisbet in late 2015, asking if the Ackland would be interested in showcasing authentic Cajal drawings. The University of Minnesota obtained the 80 images through the Cajal Institute in Madrid, but then paired modern images with the historical ones.

Note: The exhibit originated at the Weisman Museum at the University of Minnesota. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said it was the University of Minneapolis.

PP Slide 49 No 25 Triple Connections.jpg
Triple Connections, 2017 confocal micrograph Selena Romero, Matt Geden, and Mohanish Deshmukh, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

It was suggested that the other museums showing the exhibit, including the New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and the MIT Museum in Cambridge, include their own historical components.

The Ackland also has two historical pieces not found in other exhibit stops: two of the microscopic slides that Cajal used to study the brain. They’re on loan from the family of the late Dr. Edward Perl, according to the Ackland’s news release. Perl, a neuroscientist, worked at UNC for more than 40 years.

“Most of these slides are in the Cajal Institute in Spain, but two of them made their way to Chapel Hill,” Nisbet said.

A portion of the contemporary digital images were provided by the University of Minnesota, but another portion were provided by Mark Zylka, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center. Contemporary images include human MRIs, animal digital brain images and videos.

“You can definitely trace the connections,” Nisbet said. “Cajal, in his understanding of neurons and brain cells, he got it right. You can see that contemporary neuroscience is indebted to Cajal.”

This exhibition creates a link between art, history and science. Cajal was an individual who wanted to be an artist, but in his time and culture, struggled to find acceptance. He combined the two aspects of art and science, which made marks in history.

“These would still be very beautiful drawings worth enjoying in their own right, they’re so aesthetically powerful,” Nisbet says. “He was right, as it turns out, which I think just adds to the impact of the drawings. I think it allows everybody that comes to the show to think about art and science and what the role of beauty is in science.”


What: “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal”

Where: Ackland Art Museum, 101 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill

When: Open Wednesdays to Sundays. On exhibit through April 7.

Cost: Free

Info: ackland.org

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