Pages of cups, clubs and swords: the female side of neuroscience

Introducing the Pages of Cups, Wands and Swords – six female scientific profiles illustrating the variety of facets of neuroscience and the modernity of Cajal-style research. Six women with very different careers and concerns, whose destinies crossed at some point with those of Cajal or one of his disciples. We interviewed Fernando de Castro Soubriet to get to know them.

The path that would allow the first female students to obtain the first baccalaureate and later access to the University began in Europe, and especially in England and France, from the seventies and eighties of the 19th century. A process that would last until the first years of the 20th century, when women’s legal access to higher education was progressively established in the different countries of our continent [1]. Medical studies were the most chosen, so that in terms of university feminization at the end of the 19th century, this was the pioneering discipline.

In Spain, women only had access to private education with ministerial authorization in 1888 and to official education in 1910, but that did not prevent the first Spanish women, Dolors Aleu Riera and Martina Castells, from obtaining a doctorate in medicine in 1882 [2]. Women gradually joined higher university education, and during the first third of the 20th century there were 289 women in Spain who had completed science degrees. It is very likely that they were known and recognized in their time, although later the mainstream of historical heritage did not echo their profiles and many were forgotten over the years [3]. The 2019 and 2021 works published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy [4: The Women Neuroscientists in the Cajal School][5: Women Neuroscientit Disciples of Pío del Río-Hortega: the Cajal School Spreads in Europe and South America], focused on A handful of women who shared space and time with Santiago Ramón y Cajal or with one of his disciples rescue some of these female profiles from oblivion.

But who were those pioneers who worked at the Spanish Neurological School?

The cards in the neurodeck that we bring you this week are a reflection of the multiplicity of profiles that have a place in science in general, and therefore, also in neuroscientific research: doctors, trainers (as the laboratory), translators, illustrators or librarians, all of them collaborated in one way or another in the scientific production of the laboratories where they worked, coinciding with Cajal or one of his disciples.

Scientific research is a team effort that requires observation, reflection, control and collection of a lot of data in experiments of all kinds. Scientific knowledge – data, laws, relationships, theories, new methods – is the result of a complicated process in which those who investigate must surround themselves with a series of support profiles with which to work in harmony. However, we tend to forget the merits of these indispensable men and women who were part of a research team, even if they remained in the shadows. Taking the simile of nervous tissues, we could imagine scientific figures such as neurons, surrounded by men and women who, like glia cells, play an endless number of roles that are little or not visible at all, but essential to achieve synapsis and transmission. of the nervous impulse with which we could compare the scientific success attributed to the protagonist researcher.

At the beginning of the 20th century, these research support tasks were closely associated with women, and the Cajal Biological Research Laboratory was no exception, because it had female preparers in charge of preparing the histological samples and, in certain cases, such as that of Asunción Amo del Río or that of the librarian Enriqueta (Ketty) Levy, also played an essential role as translators of scientific works into English for Pío del Río-Hortega (in the case of Asunción) or into German for Cajal and his disciples at school in Madrid (in the case of Enriqueta). As we saw last week, other preparers turned out to be magnificent illustrators.

Since its creation in 1901, the Cajal Biological Research Laboratory was a model of teamwork, where in two or three decades the teacher created a school with figures of international stature capable of strengthening the scientific mass necessary to achieve productivity. Cajal turned his Madrid laboratory into a reference that attracted men and women, national and foreign, to train in histopathological techniques. Among his collaborators he did not make a distinction by titles or sex, but by his disposition and research skills. We have a good example in the trainer Manuela Serra, to whom Cajal gave the opportunity to sign an article, published in her magazine Works of the Biological Research Laboratory of the University of Madrid, entitled Notes on the gliofibrils of the neuroglia of the frog. , despite not having science studies or a university degree [4][6].

Women of neuroscience (Manuela Serra’s painting is the work of neuroscientist and painter Susanna Carmona)

Cajal was also a model for the pioneers who studied medicine at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and did not hesitate to provide them with support throughout their career. A support that he materialized by welcoming them to work with himself, as was the case of the British-Australian Laura Forster, or with his team of disciples, as happened with María Soledad Ruiz-Capillas, María Luisa Herreros or Dorothy Russell [4][5 ]. Cajal was also concerned about supporting any Spanish scientific career, both for men and women. Thus he prefaced the book Hygiene of Pregnancy and Early Childhood, which was published in 1907 by his former student at the Faculty of Medicine, Manuela Solís y Clarás, who became a prominent doctor in Medicine and Surgery who, the same year that Cajal received her Nobel Prize (1906), was elected member of the Spanish Society of Gynecology in recognition of her scientific and social career in favor of public health [1].

In the neurodeck, along with the illustrators that we presented to you last week as Jacks of Pentacles, the Jacks of Wands are embodied by Manuela Serra and Asunción Amo del Río because, like the oligodendrocytes they illustrate, they knew how to weave a network of scientific support for Cajal the first, and to Pío del Río-Hortega the second. Laura Forster and Dortohy Russell are our Pages of Swords, two foreign doctors who fought to defend the health of the wounded in the First and Second World Wars, respectively. The Pages of Cups are represented by two women who deserve them, because after their work in histology and pathology with Cajal’s disciples (Gonzalo Rodríguez Lafora and Fernando de Castro Rodríguez), Mª Soledad Ruiz Capillas was the first woman to run a spa and Mª Luisa Herreros stood out in the field of neuropsychiatry and co-founded the Spanish Association of Psychoanalysis [4, 7].

To illuminate the feminine side of neuroscience we interviewed Fernando de Castro Soubriet, who directs the Neurobiology Laboratory of the Cajal Institute, of the Higher Council for Scientific Research. Fernando is one of the signatories of these publications. We chatted with him about neuroscience in the key of women. Click on this link to see the interview to learn everything about the Neurodeck Jacks:

Have you been curious and want to know more?


[1] LLORET, Juan. Manuela Solís y Clarás, the first doctor of Valencian medicine. Article from the project Characters and spaces of science, from the Scientific Culture and Innovation Unit of the University of Valencia. Interview.html?id=1286027069810

[2] PEDRERO ROSON, Daniel. The first university women in Spain (1870-1936). Article from Archivos de Historia, published on 05/18/2020

[3] Podcast Pioneers of science in Spain. RNE documents, issued on 03/17/2016.

[4 ] GINÉ E., MARTÍNEZ C., SANZ C, NOMBELA C. and DE CASTRO F. (2019) The Women Neuroscientists in the Cajal School. Front. Neuroanat. 13:72.

[5] NOMBELA C., FERNÁNDEZ-EGEA E., GINÉ E., WORBE Y., DEL RÍO-HORTEGA BERECIARTU J. and DE CASTRO F. (2021) Women Neuroscientist Disciples of Pío del Río-Hortega: the Cajal School Spreads in Europe and South America. Front. Neuroanat.15:666938.

[6] BENAVENTE, ROCÍO P. Manuela Serra, the scientist without a career who Ramón y Cajal wanted to pay for her studies.

[7] VARONA, Mery. Blog Women’s Lives


WiNEU website: European women in Neuroscience (an initiative of FENS, Federation of European Neuroscience Societies). From this link you can access the profiles of many European neuroscientific pioneers, including those of the two women who worked with Cajal: Laura Forster and Manuela Serra.
ÁLVAREZ RICART, M. Del Carmen (1988). Women as medical professionals in 19th century Spain. Barcelona, Ed. Anthropos.
ARROW, C. (1996). The first university women in Spain, 1872-1910. Madrid, Narcea de Ediciones.

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