About a century ago, the eye of a fetus with syphilis was stamped on the sidewalk of number 64 Alfonso XII Street, in Madrid. "It was an eye that my grandfather had placed in the window frame so that sunlight would act on the silver nitrate and thus be able to study the retinal structure", I remembered in the year 2002 Santiago Ramón y Cajal Junquera. The bloody organ exploded on the pavement "causing the logical alarm of passers-by, who were about to report it to the police," according to the grandson. His grandfather was, of course, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Spanish genius who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1906, after discovering the neurons of the brain, "the butterflies of the soul".
Today, that palace on Calle Alfonso XII - where the neuroscientist lived since 1912 and where he died in 1934 - is for sale in pieces in the Idealista website, converted into luxury homes. Each of them costs 3.2 million euros. The scientific community mobilized a couple of years ago to try to get the family to sell the building to the State and transform it into a large museum dedicated to Cajal, but "to the Government he did not care a horn", In the words of the researcher Juan Andrés de Carlos. The palace is the sad symbol of the outstanding debt of Madrid, and of all Spain, with an international genius at the level of Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.
Cajal, born in 1852 in the Navarra village of Petilla de Aragón, arrived in the capital in 1892, after winning the chair of Histology at the Central University, the germ of the current Complutense. In Madrid, he set out to explore "the fine anatomy of the human brain, rightly regarded as the masterpiece of life". For this, he needed "nerve parts that were very fresh, almost throbbing", but the law did not allow the dissection of corpses until 24 hours after death. "But at the time, obstacles hindered me little. Determined to overcome them I looked for material for my work in the Inclusive and Maternity House, domains where, for obvious reasons, the tyranny of the law and the concerns of families act very slowly, "he acknowledged in his memoirs, Memories of my life, published in 1917.
The nuns of the Charity, as she related, became her assistants in the autopsies: "I can affirm that during a work of two years I freely disposed of hundreds of fetuses and children of different ages, which I dissected two or three hours after the death and even hot. " Before the eyes of Cajal, "the human brain began to babble some of its secrets". He discovered and described the neuronal types of each brain region, his "specific and absolutely unmistakable warp". For centuries, the brain had been considered a uniform mass. Until Cajal arrived.
The researcher had grown up among illiterate farmers in the fields of Aragon, he had studied medicine in Zaragoza and had taught at the universities of Valencia and Barcelona, but, at 40, Cajal fell in love with his new home. "Madrid is a very dangerous city for the industrious and eager provincial to broaden the horizons of his intelligence," he wrote. in your memories. "The ease and pleasure of social treatment, the abundance of talent, the attractiveness of societies, cenacles and gatherings, where they continually officiate the great prestige of politics, literature and art; the varied theatrical shows and a thousand other distractions seduce and captivate the stranger, who suddenly finds himself demagnetized and stunned. "
"Madrid, you are rightly called the land of friends, you welcome all the children of Spain, even those born in the remotest peninsular and overseas regions, and you do not ask anyone where they come from". proclaimed in 1926 to thank the erection of a monument to his figure in the heart of the Retiro Park.
That work, a monumental fountain conceived by the sculptor Victorio Macho, it is one of the few visible testimonies of the presence of Cajal in Madrid. Most of his legacy - which includes 22,000 pieces, such as manuscripts, drawings and spectacular photographs taken by himself - carries since 1989 stored in boxes in a room of the current Cajal Institute, a CSIC research center located near the Santiago Bernabéu football stadium. "I have been trying for more than 10 years to create a Cajal Museum, but there is no way to get it out of the hole. It is a crime, "laments De Carlos, a researcher at the Institute who fights against the oblivion of the legacy. Next to the neuroscientist José Ramón Alonso, just published Cajal A cry for science (Next Door Publishers), a new biography that stops at the vicissitudes of the Nobel Prize in Madrid.
Cajal, remember the authors, became fond of the café of Suizo, whose lot at number 16 Calle Alcalá is now occupied by a famous BBVA building topped by two metal quads of 12 tons each. The disappeared coffee, founded by the Swiss Pedro Fanconi and Francesco Matossi, was a huge place, where delicious milk rolls were served, which even today, in many cities, they are still called Swiss. There, around the marble tables, lawyers, doctors and scientists, all of them men, talked passionately about politics and literature. And the "militant and boisterous feminism" that, according to Cajal, sprung a century ago.
"Although it is demonstrated - and this unfortunately has some truths - that the current woman is worth, taken together, intellectually less than man, feminists will always be able to argue:" Expect society to grant all young women of the middle class the same kind of education and instruction as men, also dispensing the most intelligent of the care and concern of the offspring, and ... then we will talk, "reflected Cajal in his book Coffee talks, published in 1920. The scientist always claimed that his wife, Silveria Fañanás, dedicated to raising the seven children they had together, "made possible the stubborn and obscure labor" that led him to the Nobel Prize.
"The Swiss became so popular that a group of ladies mounted a small Swiss, called Suicillo. It was one of the first feminist tearooms in the city of the bear and the madroño, "Enriqueta Lewy recounted in her book Santiago Ramón y Cajal: the man, the wise man and the thinker (CSIC, 1987). In 1926, Lewy, only 16 years old, began working with the neuroscientist to translate the texts into German. In 1996, in an interview With EL PAÍS, the elderly woman remembered the conditions in which the Nobel Prize winner was investigating: "Animals for the laboratory were supplied by a drunkard which we called The Ranero. He provided us with cats and pregnant rabbits that he stole in the corrals. "
Many of the fruits of that frenetic research activity have been stored for 30 years in the boxes of the Cajal Institute of the CSIC. The neuroscientist José Ramón Alonso does not conceive it: "People do not know enough about Cajal If we want to promote scientific vocations, let's take advantage of this exceptional character It is amazing that we still do not have a museum".
"Although it moved throughout the city," said doctor Alberto Anaya Munné, "there is a Cajalian Madrid par excellence." In 2002, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of a neuroscientist, Anaya proposed in the Spanish Journal of Pathology an itinerary "To return Cajal to the touch of the people of Madrid". The walk starts in the building on the corner of Príncipe and Huertas streets, where the researcher received with disbelief the telegram announcing the award of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, one morning in October 1906. Today there is a Murcia restaurant.
With the street of Atocha as a backbone, walkers discover at number 106 the old Faculty of Medicine of San Carlos, where you can contemplate the classroom in which Cajal taught classes between 1892 and 1922. The room today belongs to the Official College of Physicians of Madrid and would be a good space to house a National Museum of Cajal, but the legacy of 22,000 pieces of the neuroscientist It is owned by the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC). The two institutions have not agreed to unite the content and the continent and have not received support from the authorities, according to Juan Andrés de Carlos, custodian of the Cajal Legacy for a decade.
The Nobel prize gave classes in the mornings and in the afternoons he walked to his place of study, the Biological Research Laboratory, in a wing of what is now the National Museum of Anthropology. There he was a stone's throw from what was his dwelling until his death, the mansion of number 64 Alfonso XII street, from where the eyes of syphilitic fetuses fell out of the window. Here, submerged in the hubbub of the Atocha trains and already turned into a sickly and cantankerous old man, he would write his last book, The world seen at 80 years (1934): "For the sake of concord, Madrid has agreed to humiliating reforms, for example: that of the rail links, which, in exchange for parvas comforts of general traffic, will convert the capital into a transit station, with irreparable damage to theaters, restaurants, shops and interurban transport ".