Susan Lanzoni reviews Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse by Richard Rapport, and The War of the Soups and the Sparks: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute over How Nerves Communicate by Eliot Valenstein, in American Scientist:
Scientific style and personality loom large in Nerve Endings and The War of the Soups and the Sparks, two new books documenting discoveries about the neuron’s anatomical structure and its modes of transmitting nerve impulses. These volumes tell a story that begins in the late 19th century and is still being written today. Both accounts meld individual biographies of scientists with descriptions of experimental procedures and raise questions about the ways in which styles of research, creativity and intuition have contributed to the practice of experimental neuroscience.
In Nerve Endings, Richard Rapport, a neurosurgeon by training, focuses on the life and work of the Spanish artist and scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal and to a lesser extent on Cajal’s Italian rival, Camillo Golgi. Cajal’s late 19th-century conception of a discrete nervous cell, separated from other cells by a gap (later called a synapse), came to replace the older reticular theory, which postulated that nervous tissue comprised a seamless, continuous web—an unbroken network, or reticulum—through which nerve impulses could travel in any direction. Golgi’s adamant advocacy of the reticular theory was the source of his conflict with Cajal.