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Texture of the Nervous System of Man and the Vertebrates by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Volume 1.
  1. ALASTAIR COMPSTON

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    Texture of the Nervous System of Man and the Vertebrates by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Volume 1. Translated and edited by pedro pasikand tauba pasik (Pp v1, 631. DM289, $US189.). Published by: Springer-Verlag, New York, 1999. 84-07-00200-3 (complete series 3-211-83056-1).

    Everything we know about structure, function, and physiology in the nervous system at the cellular level, in health and disease, evolves from the concept that organisation is through the connectivity of functionally independent neurons and their processes. Santiago Ramon y Cajal distinguished neurons from glia; showed the variability of dendritic arborisations and axon terminations; established that axon cylinders end freely but form contacts; conceived that the nerve impulse is conducted between axons, dendrites, and the cell body of neighbouring neurons; had the concepts of trophism and tropism; and following Rudolph Virchow, regarded the cell as the unit of all biological systems. His most detailed studies were of the cerebellum but, in time, no part of the brain and spinal cord went unexplored. His great synthesis was to settle debate on the neuron theory. His descriptions were supplemented by beautiful drawings based on Golgi stains. He and Golgi were jointly awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 1906. They disagreed publicly during the lectures in Stockholm.

    Cajal is the most significant neuroscientist of the 20th century—Sir Charles Sherrington being his only serious competitor. They met only once when Sherrington hosted Cajal's stay in London to deliver the 1894 Royal Society Croonian lecture. During the visit, Cajal was arrested as a vagrant at Cambridge railway station when visiting the provinces to receive an honorary doctorate. Cajal and Sherrington fell over themselves to outpraise each other. Sherrington on Cajal: “He is the greatest anatomist the nervous system has ever known . . .he solved at a stroke the direction of nerve currents in their travel through the brain and spinal cord . . .it was a step of genius to study the embryonic nervous system.“

    Between 1880 and 1933, Cajal wrote 288 scientific publications including 22 monographs. Much of his work remains untranslated from the original Spanish and hence unread. But the sustained admiration for Cajal's writings and their contemporary relevance for neuroscience is now matched by a welcome revival in publishing his works.Textura del sistema nervioso del hombre y de los vertebrados was published from Madrid in three volumes (1897, 1898, and 1904). It was updated by Cajal with new text and illustrations for the translation into French asHistologie du systeme nerveux de l'homme et des vertebres by Dr Leon Azoulay (2 volumes: 1909-11). The complete French edition was first translated into English by Neely Swanson and Larry Swanson as Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates (Oxford University Press, 1995). Now the original Spanish text is undergoing translation by Pedro Pasik and Tauba Pasik as Texture of the Nervous System of Man and the Vertebrates. The first of three volumes appeared in 1999; the other two are promised for 2000.

    The advertising flysheet champions Cajal's discovery of growth cones, chemoattractant substances, dendritic spines, and cortical interneurons and claims absolute authority over both the French and first English editions. It boasts illustrations based on original reproductions of drawings archived in the Cajal Institute in Madrid (the evidence is in the Museo-Cajal-Madrid stamp on many figures) with very little copied from previously published editions. Facts and citations are corrected from Cajal's original text and authenticated against contemporary sources. In which edition should the discerning Cajal reader invest? When complete, the Springer set will cost DM850/£330/$550 compared with £150 for the two Oxford volumes. The difference is worth paying. The English-Spanish text is authentic: compare “the nervous system represents the ultimate boundary in the evolution of living matter, and the most complicated machinery of noblest activities that Nature has to offer“ (English-Spanish) with “countless modifications during evolution have provided living matter with an instrument of unparalleled complexity and remarkable functions: the nervous system, the most highly organised structure in the animal kingdom“ (English-French); or “it appears that with this [chemotactic] hypothesis we have shed light into a dark cave, when in reality we have explored only the entrance, from which its imposing abyss appears even more distant and black“ (English-Spanish) versus “the theory of chemotaxis we advanced . . .initially appeared to be pure conjecture with no hope of verification, although recently it has gained experimental support“(English-French).

    The text is authoritative and the production lavish. Pedro and Tauba Pasik include, and readily identify, translation of material added by Cajal for the French edition between 1904 and 1909. Original footnotes are retained but the citations are modernised and gathered in a single section completing the English-Spanish text. The lack of an index will be put right when volume three is published. The illustrations are incomparably better in the Springer than the Oxford volume[s]. The line drawings are much more crisp; the original figures of methylene blue staining reproduce poorly as black and white (Oxford) but some of their polychromatic figures are more subtle. Volume one deals with the general principles of organisation in the nervous system and Cajal's methods, the details of neuronal structure and the spinal cord. Volumes two and three will complete the medulla and pons, cerebellum, midbrain, diencephalon including the retina, cortex, and autonomic nervous system. The original Spanish and French editions are very expensive and virtually unobtainable. For the historian, physician, or scientist who studies neuroscience, whether or not to invest in the Springer set is simply not an issue—even if you already have the Oxford edition. Both are magnificent publishing achievements . . .but the Pasiks are on course to produce the definitive English language edition of the definitive Cajal.

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