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In new exhibition, University of British Columbia shines spotlight on Spanish pathologist who merged neuroscience and visual splendour

Santiago Ramon y Cajal injured Purkinje neurons, 1914 ink and pencil on paper.

Santiago Ramon y Cajal wanted to be an artist, but his father, a physician and anatomy teacher, wanted his son to follow in his medical footsteps. It's a familiar story of family dynamics, but what wound up happening in this case was revolutionary.

Cajal, who was born in 1852 in northeastern Spain, did ultimately go into medicine, as his father wished. He became a pathologist, histologist and neuroscientist. But he also applied his artistic skills to his area of interest. His hand-drawn illustrations of the brain, based on what he saw through the microscope using stained brain tissue (thanks to a technique developed by his contemporary, the Italian histologist Camillo Golgi) were pioneering. Cajal, who won the Nobel Prize in 1906 (along with Golgi), is known as the father of modern neuroscience. More than a century after he made them, his drawings are still used to illustrate principles of neuroscience.

Santiago Ramon y Cajal, seen above in 1876, applied his artistic skills to neuroscience, producing revolutionary hand-drawn illustrations of the brain that had both scientific and artistic merit.

"When I was a student … everybody would start their talk, 'as first shown by Cajal,'" says Brian MacVicar, co-director at Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia.

When MacVicar learned that an exhibition of Cajal's drawings was being planned by neuroscience colleagues in Minnesota along with the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, he was immediately on a mission: to bring the drawings to Vancouver. He finally extracted a yes from the show organizers, but not operating in the art world, MacVicar wasn't sure who might want to exhibit them in Vancouver. The answer turned out to be right in his backyard – or at least, a few blocks away on campus. Scott Watson, director/curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, had seen Cajal's work at the Istanbul Biennial in 2015 – and understood their appeal and value.

"They're really compelling to look at," says Watson, who is also head of UBC's Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory. "If I hadn't known what they were, I probably would have found a way to … avoid it. But I knew what they were because I'd seen them and I thought: This is a really good idea.

Santiago Ramon y Cajal calyces of Held in the nucleus of the trapezoid body, 1934 ink and pencil on paper. Courtesy of Instituto Cajal (CSIC)

"I'm really interested in encouraging more conversations between art and science for all kinds of reasons," he continued during a recent interview as the show was being installed. "I want art and art history to survive at the university, so I want to see how they can be made more useful."

The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal – the first North American museum exhibition to present his work – opens at the Belkin on Sept. 5, marking the first time these drawings will be exhibited in Canada.

The show draws attention to the lost art of medical illustration, featuring about 80 of Cajal's groundbreaking illustrations – so fine, so detailed, that even if you have no idea what you're looking at, you can't help but be impressed. Highly detailed wall labels geared toward the layperson provide essential context.

Santiago Ramon y Cajal glial cells of the mouse spinal cord, 1899 ink and pencil on paper.

Cajal's contributions to our understanding of the brain were enormous – for instance, his discovery that nervous tissue was not a single continuous tangled network, but was in fact made up of individual cells called neurons. This, known as the neuron doctrine, is a fundamental tenet of neuroscience today; it was confirmed decades after Cajal's work (and after his death in 1934), thanks to the electron microscope.

There's more to these illustrations than straight-up science. To begin with, these are not simply copies of what Cajal saw. As MacVicar puts it: "There's a synthesis; there's a portrayal of complex scientific thought here. It's not just reproducing."

They're also aesthetically beautiful – and as visual art, open to interpretation. "I can look at them as drawings," Watson says. "I know they're diagrams of the brain … I'm not a scientist; I don't really know what I'm looking at. But that's often the case with art."

Santiago Ramon y Cajal the pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex, 1904 ink and pencil on paper.

In the Belkin's third gallery, the complementary exhibition Thought Forms deals with the brain and pseudo-science. There are abstract paintings and drawings by Group of Seven co-founder Lawren Harris, who was a theosophist. The works are based on auras and thought forms. "He was trying to visualize consciousness in a way," Watson says. Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater were also visualizing thought with their book Thought Forms (1901) and the show includes illustrations from that as well as Leadbeater's The Chakras (1927). These works were integral to the beginnings of abstract art in the 20th century, Watson explains.

The Belkin is also showing contemporary brain videos and medical photography to help viewers put Cajal's drawings in context.

The exhibition fits with UBC's drive for interdisciplinary dialogue. Its Art and Medicine: Rounding at the Belkin program, which started last year, invites first-year UBC medical students into the gallery to learn about art. The idea is that engagement with art can strengthen observational and communication skills – in essence, making them better doctors.

Santiago Ramon y Cajal glial cells of the cerebral cortex of a child, 1904 ink and pencil on paper. Courtesy of Instituto Cajal (CSIC)

Confession: As a non-scientist, my brain hurt at times reading the catalogue, the exhibition labels and even listening to MacVicar's user-friendly explanations of what I was looking at.

But even if my synapses weren't firing on all cylinders to allow full understanding of the workings of the brain as pictured, I could appreciate the beauty in these illustrations. They are also stimulating for the imagination (i.e. the brain).

In one drawing – of injured Purkinje neurons of the cerebellum – I saw a penguin; in another, of neurons in the gut, I saw dancing stick figures. Many have a botanical feel; the illustration of a Purkinje neuron, which appears on the cover of the catalogue, resembles a large tree.

It was an analogy that Cajal himself used. As he stated in 1894, "The cerebral cortex is similar to a garden filled with innumerable trees, the pyramidal cells, which can multiply their branches thanks to intelligent cultivation, send their roots deeper, and produce more exquisite flowers and fruits every day."

The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal is at the Belkin Gallery in Vancouver Sept. 5 to Dec 3.