Golgi’s controversial Nobel Speech

It has been said that the history of the neuron doctrine is one of paradox (Jones, 1999), for the two men who have greatly contributed towards our current understanding of the neuron doctrine had opposing views.  Camillo Golgi was a strong proponent of the nerve network, while Santiago Ramón y Cajal believed, from strong evidence, that nerve cells were not fused together.

Nevertheless, both of these men contributed greatly towards our present knowledge of neurons, and for this these two men shared the nobel prize in 1906 in the area of physiology and medicine (Finger, 2000).
However, Golgi did not prevent himself from expressing the tension he felt for sharing the nobel prize with someone of opposing views. Golgi spoke first:

It may seem strange that, since I have always been opposed to the neuron theory – although acknowledging that its starting-point is to be found in my own work – I have chosen this question of the neuron as the subject of my lecture, and that it comes at a time when this doctrine is generally recognized to be going out of favor. The subject, however, is still a very important one in spite of these signs of decline; but more than that, it is a very real one, for the majority of physiologists, anatomists and pathologists still support the neuron theory, and no clinician could think himself sufficiently up to date if he did not accept its ideas like articles of faith. It is a subject which deserves to be re-examined all the more because there is a growing tendency to attach to the word neuron a meaning different from the proper one. Many authors, in fact, play on words by substituting the word neuron for nerve cell, and this has now become legalized through common usage and tradition. Admitting that eventual substitution scarcely involves a question of principle and that after all it is nothing new, for continuity between the cell and nerve fibres was already well known, I ought to say that I am against giving a meaning to a word which differs from that given it by the person who introduced the word into science. (Golgi, 1906)

Golgi then continued to go on a rant of providing supporting evidence for the nerve network.  In other words, Golgi was blatantly telling the audience that the major contributions of the man he was sharing the Noble prize with were all completely wrong.  In response, Cajal could have retaliated, but he didn’t:

In accordance with the tradition followed by the illustrious orators honored before me with the Nobel Prize, I am going to talk to you about the principal results of my scientific work in the realm of the histology and physiology of the nervous system. (Cajal, 2006)


Cajal, S. R. (1906). The Structure and Connexions of Neurons.  In Nobel Lecture.
          Retrieved November 5, 2010 from: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine

Finger, S. (2000).  Minds Behind the Brain: A History of the Pioneers and Their           Discoveries. New York NY: Oxford Press.

Golgi, C. (1906).  The neuron doctrine – Theory and Facts. In Nobel Lecture. Retrieved           November 5, 2010 from: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1906/golgi-lecture.pdf

Jones, E. (1999). Golgi, Cajal and the Neuron Doctrine. Journal of the History of the           Neurosciences, 8(2), 170-178. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

This page was created by Neil Thorne

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