The terrestrial and the celestial
Contrasting notions of Ramón y Cajal and Constantin von Economo
on forced propulsion
Lazaros C. Triarhou, MD, PhD
University of Macedonia, Thessalonica, Greece
Two visionaries of biomedicine, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934),
“the father of modern neuroscience,” and Constantin von Economo
(1876-1931), “a passing meteor in the firmament of neurology,”
made major discoveries in neuron biology, cerebral cytoarchitecture,
and human neuropathology.
Their surnames are carved into
eponyms, including “Cajal cells” and “von Economo encephalitis.”
Cajal was awarded the Nobel Prize (jointly with Camillo Golgi);
Economo was nominated for the summa cum laude of the Swedish
Their era witnessed the advent of the bicycle, the typewriter, the
telephone, electricity, the automobile, and the airplane. It was in their
lifetime that science harvested fruits begotten by the laboratory
revolution of the 1860s. It was also their lifetime that witnessed the
There are parallels in the lives of the two men. Both explored the
mind through a microscope and drew nerve cells via a camera lucida.
They lived by the altruism common in their heyday. And they
Figure 1. (Left) Marble bust of Ramón y
Cajal. Royal National Academy of Medicine
in Madrid, reproduced from a period
(Right) Marble bust of Constantin von
Economo. Arkadenhof of Vienna University,
crafted by artist Max Kremser from an
actual cast with the Alphons Poller
technique. Author’s archive.
There are also differences. I next highlight antipodal opinions that the two anatomists expressed regarding the
conquest of speed by engineering. For the nostalgic Cajal, the transition from the horse to the automobile and
the flying apparatus was a dangerous endeavor. For the technically-minded Economo, the conquest of gravity
was a step forward in the path of humanity’s evolution.
The frenzy of velocity
On May 25, 1934, Cajal published his Impressions of an Arteriosclerotic, an attempt at clarifying age’s problems
for the laity.
In one chapter, under the present subheading, Cajal expressed a displeasure for the airplane,
which he considered a deplorable obsession and a dangerous contraption.
Here is an excerpt:
Innumerable writers have deplored this dangerous mania of our times. Humanity seems determined to
eliminate distance. We used to explore the terrain travelling on horse, in carriage or accelerated galley,
get ecstatic before the picturesque landscape, historical ruins, breath the fragrant atmosphere of forests
and orchards, rest in busy inns and reanimate numb limbs over logs of the traditional fireplace! All this
has passed to history. We now arrive as early as possible where no one expects us; we ignore the road;
we cohabit with disdainful, moody and idler gentlemen; we are condemned to silence for long hours,
swallowing dust and soot…
Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities
As if the train was not enough to satisfy the crazy urge for dizzying speed, the miracle of Yankee and
French mechanics emerged: the car…We have become preoccupied with the purchase of car models,
lubricants, gasoline, tires, licenses, and endless taxes. We are concerned with the selection of a chauffeur,
in whose sinful hands and brain (not always alcohol-free) we entrust our life and that of our loved ones.
The advances in engineering produced a victim that no one talks about: the noble horse, whose disdain
will ultimately extinguish the equine race. Perhaps track betting will somewhat delay the thoroughbred’s
annihilation. Like zoological species, the inventions of civilization hatch, triumph, decay and expire, only to
be replaced by other mechanisms, more refined and almost always more lethal.
The automobile produced unexpected moral effects in big cities…Poor children, elderly and distracted,
sacrificed victims of progress and useless velocity! And poor engulfed poets and thinkers!... But the most
unpleasant aspect of the automobile is the sleight of the landscape. Acceleration suppresses the
enchantment of contemplation. We must resign to ignoring the road, travel like packages among clouds of
dust and parades of menacing trees.
The automotive artefact is a despicable machine. The slightest shock deteriorates it, and it has to be
rebuilt and renewed every four to six years. We converted the roads, which were designed for carriages
and horses, into race tracks; and the road has avenged our imprudence by causing all types of tragic
In the early days of motoring, donkeys and horses, terrified before the advance of the formidable artefact,
would quickly turn towards the curb or stray into the row of adjacent trees to escape the absurd projectile,
guided by the infallible instinct of danger. To no effect, the prudent solipeds explored the front of the
vehicle to discern the horse. Accustomed now to our recklessness, they are no longer scared —
unequivocal proof that they learn. Through willpower they bridled their reflexes and acquired a sangfroid
that we would wish to have. A modality of “conditioned reflexes,” as Pavlov would say.
The automobile was not enough to satisfy the irrepressible craving for acceleration. First a couple of
Americans, then the French, launched a new extremely dangerous toy: the homicidal airplane. Bold and
fearless in war, it is as scary in peace…This new Moloch of applied science slaughters hundreds of victims
annually. I know of no active aviator who has reached age 50. They all die in accidents, and the funny
thing is that no nation lacks candidates for violent death. It is so graceful to hover in the clouds and
admire the earth as a two-dimensional miniature, to feel the jolt of “air-bumps” and to pity the miserable
rampants, like ants at ground level...
Haunted by the demon of velocity, life lost much of its value. Above all, life lost that peace of mind, which
is so compatible with the aesthetic pleasures of landscape. One dies with the same unconsciousness with
which one is born, but faster, without agony. The human organism, whose formation and education costs
25 years, is destroyed instantly. In a flash, it turns into an amorphous mass of physicochemical
From this brutally realistic perspective, combustion engines can be considered regulatory instruments of
demography. Thanks to them, population figures are maintained within prudential limits. The Manes of
Malthus [deities that represent the souls of the dead in the Essay on the Principle of Population] would
smile satisfied, seeing how scientific industries automatically diminish the overabundance of banqueters
waiting for their turn at the dinner table, increasingly less stocked, from social subsistence.
Usque ad astra!
In 1907, with the historic flight of the Wright brothers still fresh, the youthful Economo became interested in
He purchased a Voisin biplane in Mourmelon-sur-Marne and an Etrich Taube aircraft in Vienna.
Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities
Economo was the first Austrian to obtain an international pilot’s diploma and was field-pilot no. 7 of the Austro-
Hungarian Empire; he presided over the Austrian Aero-Club for sixteen years and served as chairman of the
Aviation Board at the Austrian Ministry of Commerce and Transport.
In 1918 he published a memorandum on
the conditions and the necessity of promoting air traffic.
In 1927, on concluding the active presidency of the Aero-Club, Economo responded to his successor as follows:
Comrades! It is a time rich in hopes, disappointments and
beautiful fulfillments, full of memories of a glorious
development, begun with the adventurous ascent in the
spherical balloon and continued to the recently accomplished
flights over sea and land. The millenia-old envy of man at the
flight of birds and the drift of clouds has found form.
God, or Nature, or whatever else you wish to call the
mysterious creative force of this world, which in the course of
millions of years in the scale of phylogenetic evolution created
out of the simple cell all the diverse and ever more complex
forms of life, and continues to perfect them, has, of all living
things on this earth, endowed only man with the capacity to
create new things. And while in the animal world, for example,
the creative power of birds is limited to building the same nest
over and over, or of bees to the unchanging design of the
honeycomb, Creation impressed part of its creative craft upon
the human brain, enabling us to create anew and to achieve
increasingly higher possibilities along the way of our
ascending evolution. And so it is this same creative force of
Nature, which in the course of eons gave the eagle its flight,
that in recent decades enabled us humans to construct wings
and overcome the ties of gravity that bind us to the earth.
Such endeavors come to expression in part consciously, in
part unconsciously, as an idea or as a brooding urge, in this
instance as the ancient longing, ever-recurrent in dreams, to
fly through space, freed from the chains of gravity.
Figure 2. (Upper) Baron von Economo with
his Etrich-IV Taube monoplane, saluted by
Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary
at the Wiener Neustadt airfield (9/18/1910).
(Lower) Prof. Cajal stepping out of his
Panhard & Levassor near Calle Montera,
Madrid. Photo by Palomo for Blanco y Negro
(10/21/1934). Author’s archive.
Economo had a deep insight into physics and studied the newly formulated theory of relativity.
celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Aero-Club in March 1931,
Economo foresaw space flight:
Calculation shows that, to lift a body to regions in space beyond the gravitational pull of our earth, it
would require a wholly terrific amount of explosive material, several thousand times the mass of the body
in question. Modern physical research shows that once we have a means of mastering the disintegration of
atoms, it will be possible to transcend the force of gravity. Those who then as worthy sons of the Titans
make these first journeys will be of the same stuff as their predecessors who conquered the air, and from
the ranks of the conquerors of the air will advance these stormers of the heavens.
Clear to the stars!
Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities
Thus Baron von Economo envisaged travel in space. However, it was Cajal’s glass slides, and eight of his ink
drawings, that defied gravity and hopped a ride aboard NASA’s Columbia Space Shuttle during “Mission Neurolab
STS-90” on April 17, 1998.
Coincidentally, that day marked the 81st anniversary of Economo’s lecture before
the Viennese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology, and the historic presentation of a new entity termed
1. DeFelipe J. Sesquicentenary of the birthday of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience. Trends
2. Théodoridès J. Constantin von Economo (1876-1931) savant, humaniste, homme d’action. CR Congr Int Hist Méd.
3. Santarén JAF. Santiago Ramón y Cajal: Epistolario. Madrid: La Esfera de los Libros; 2014.
4. Ramón y Cajal S. El mundo visto a los ochenta años: Impresiones de un arteriosclerótico. Madrid: Tipografía
5. Historical section. Gerontologist. 1968;8:54-55.
6. Ramón y Cajal S. Der Rausch der Schnelligkeit (transl. by H. Draws-Tychsen). Die Fähre. 1947;2:635-637.
7. Hoare MR. Ramón y Cajal’s testament to old age. Rev Clin Gerontol. 1998;8:163-171.
8. Triarhou LC. Cajal beyond the Brain: Don Santiago Contemplates the Mind and Its Education. Thessalonica –
Indianapolis: Corpus Callosum; 2015:170-176.
9. Schönburg-Hartenstein von Economo K, Wagner von Jauregg J. Baron Constantin von Economo: His Life and Work
(transl. by R. Spillman). Burlington, VT: Free Press Interstate Printing Corp.; 1937.
10. van Bogaert L, Théodoridès J. Constantin von Economo: The Man and the Scientist. Vienna: Verlag der
Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften; 1979.
11. Fischer I. Biographisches Lexikon der hervorragenden Ärzte der letzten 50 Jahre, Bd. 1. Vienna: Österreichisches
Biographisches Lexikon; 1932.
12. von Economo CJ. Memorandum betreffs des derzeitigen Standes und der notwendigen Förderung eines
Luftverkehres. Mitteil kk Österr Aëro-Club. 1918;5:150-160.
13. Nombela Cano C. Misión Neurolab, CSIC – NASA, Abril 1998. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones
14. von Economo C. Encephalitis lethargica. Wiener Klin Wochenschr. 1917;30:581-585.
LAZAROS C. TRIARHOU, MD, PhD is Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Macedonia in Thessalonica, Greece.
After graduating from the Aristotelian University School of Medicine, he pursued graduate studies in the Center for Brain
Research of the University of Rochester, New York, and the Neuropathology Division of Indiana University School of
Medicine in Indianapolis, where he also served on the faculty for a dozen years before returning to his native Greece.
He is the recipient of the Bodossakis Foundation Science Prize in Medicine. He has authored over 150 papers in
Neurobiology and written or edited 30 books.
Volume 8, Issue 2, Spring 2016 (Section: Science)