Ramón y Cajal, la estrella de España  (2006.8.1[Tue])

 

It's little known, even among Japanese readers, that Ryosei Koganei, the grandfather of science fiction author Shinichi Hoshi, studied under Wilhelm Waldeyer, the German cell biologist who first coined the term 'neurons'. But it was left to Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a young and multifaceted Spanish scientist, to prove their existence. In doing so, Cajal found himself in direct confrontation with the eminent Itali an biologist Camillo Golgi (discoverer of the organelle that bears his name, and inventor of the silver nitrate staining method still in use today). Golgi had proposed a reticular theory of the nervous system, involving a continuous network of filaments, which Cajal countered with his now-famous " neuron doctrine, " which correctly states that the nervous system is made up of individual cells, or neurons; the two were to share a Nobel Prize in 1906.

 In what may be the epitome of cool, Cajal sent a bound set of reprints that included his historic manuscript,  Nuevo concepto de la Histología de los centros nerviosos (A new concept of the histology of the central nervous system) to Waldeyer with the inscription, "To Waldeyer, who named the neurons, from Cajal, who discovered them." On Waldeyer's death, Koganei acquired his library and donated it to the Tokyo Imperial University Medical College library, where it remains today as the Waldeyer Collection. And so, by some quirk of fate or circumstance, that historic and unique compilation is right here in Japan. (I first learned of this story from Hajime Mannen, editor of a Japanese series on the origins of neuroscience, published by Todai Shuppankai).

 By way of that long and circuitous preamble, in this edition of the Library News I'd like to introduce Ramón y Cajal's " Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates, Vols. 1 & 2 "(1995). O riginally published in the author's native Spanish, this work was translated into French by Azoulay in 1952 (  Histologie du Systèm Nerveux de l'Homme & Vertébrés*1). Interestingly, it was this French translation that served as the basis of the English translation by Neely and Larry Swanson just over ten years ago. The French edition differs from the English in its inclusion of a large photograph of Cajal and a number of color plates on the frontispiece and interleaves. I should warn you now that the story I'd like to share with you below is actually kind of a bibliophile's saga, the tale of my long quest for a certain book. Sadly, I don't have the knowledge to write on either Cajal's incontestably dramatic life or the field of neurodevelopment which he helped pioneer.

 The tale will focus, rather, on my pair of sets of the Cajal two-volume work, and how I came to acquire them. For the record, I'm not a rabid fan of Cajal's; it's just that some particularly poor timing led me to buy the same books twice. I wouldn't call it fate, though; more like inevitability. When I was working the US in the 1990s, a variety of new techniques, such as molecular biology and molecular genetics, were leading to new research applications, and the field of neurodevelopment saw rapid advances being made. For the first time, people using these powerful new techniques were becoming able to answer at the molecular level the fundamental questions of which neurons were differentiating (or being specified), where and how. This was the age when scientists were at last able to make findings like, " The notochord induces the floor plate of the neural tube, which in turns induces the development of motor neurons, and Sonic hedgehog from both the notochord and the floor plate has been implicated as an inductive factor." Of course, it goes without saying that to get to the point where such experiments could be done had to wait for the development of collections of differentially stained neurons and the requisite laboratory techniques. Propelled forward by this wave of technological advances, neurodevelopment came to challenge and ultimately overtake morphology in the level of detail it could achieve. The forebrain, for example, was found to have " invisible segments " the structures that we call prosomeres today. And, as is often the case when a field comes into its own, the works of the founding fathers were exhumed and closely re-appraised in light of the contemporary state of knowledge. Cajal, of course, was one of that eminent group.

 The year was 1991 and the reinvigorated field of developmental biology was enjoying the peak of its newfound success. I had the opportunity to browse through the stacks at the excellent Columbia University library, and came across no less than three sets of the Histologie du Syst è me Nerveux… , the figures within. Image after image of specimens stained by silver impregnation(the reazione nera ). And some of them seemed to have their dorsal and ventral aspects reversed … What was this? I immediately knew I had to have these books. (Incidentally, it was on this same visit that I stumbled across Kupffer's monograph on the hagfish embryo; I still can't believe I didn't make a photocopy.)

 I placed a search request with a used and out-of-print books locator I knew as soon as I returned home to Georgia. This same service had found me a copy of " The Comparative Anatomy of the Nervous System of Vertebrates, Including Man &#quot; (Macmillan, 1936) by Ari ë ns-Kappers, Huber and Crosby, and I was grateful for their relatively inexpensive rates. They responded faster than I anticipated − " We located a copy in fine condition. The price is $700." I'd always been of the opinion that you can't place a value on a good book, at least until I saw that price quote. I pondered whether or not to buy it for a whole week. Part of that time I spent realizing that I'd never actually bought such an expensive book in my life. I was about 70% of the way to deciding to buy that book at that rate and called them, but the search service told me that it had already gone to another buyer. I kicked myself for not grabbing it when I had the chance.

 Just half a year later, the same service told me that they'd located another copy, also in excellent condition. I mailed them a check right away and soon received my Cajal. I've dabbled in French, but basically don't read it, but I figured it's not so different from English so I should be able to claw my way through it. The real satisfaction was in having those plates for my very own. Later, after I returned to Japan and had been working at Kumamoto University for about a year I found the publication of the English edition at a local bookstore. And at less than half the price of the French one (!). Still I knew I'd end up buying it. At least it was in a language I was comfortable with.

 I'd be willing to bet that I'm not the only one who's had this experience. I'm sure there were other researchers back then who wanted to bone up on their history of neurodevelopment who thought, " I should get a copy of Cajal's book," and then set about searching for it just like I did. And I'd guess that all that interest was picked up on by publishers, who then decided that the time was ripe for an English edition. This must happen with out-of-print books in other fields as well. You spend time searching for some hard-to-find text, then pay through the nose to buy it, only to find out soon after that it's been published in an cheap new reissue. That's what happened to me anyway − I just got caught up in the moment. But you could say that it's because there are chumps like me out there that you can now read Cajal in an affordable English translation. With Japan's publishing in the doldrums, maybe it's time for more researchers to help reignite the industry by poking around for old editions − but if you do, be prepared to play the sucker.

Reference : "Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates Vols.1 & 2"