We get off the train in Madrid where we meet

Laura Forster and Manuela Serra

at the Cajal school

Image of Santiago Ramón y Cajal (front raw) close to the microscopy. Behind (from left to right) Francisco Tello, Fernando de Castro, Carmen Serra (Manuelas´s sister) and Manuela Serra (1920´s, the Instituto de Investigaciones Biológcas, Madrid). Photogram taken from the film “Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Las mariposas del alma” (Santiago Ramón y Cajal. The Butterflies of the Soul). Reproduced with the permission of the Cajal Institute (CSIC).

When Santiago Ramón y Cajal  received the Echegaray Medal from the Royal Spanish National Academy of Physics, Exact and Natural Sciences (1922), he listed all the members of the School, which included two women, Laura Forster and Manuela Serra. These were the only two women to develop their scientific potential in the School while Cajal was still fully active. Cajal himself and his disciples developed and improved  neurohistochemical techniques  used to verify the existence and functioning of independent neurons in both central and peripheral nervous system along the phylogenic scale. These women made interesting contributions, providing support to the “Neuronal theory of Cajal”, not fully accepted at that time. As the rest of the male disciples, these women deserve this delayed recognition for their contribution to the theory that initiated the History of Modern Neuroscience.

Laura Forster

Publication by Laura Forster (wrongly written “Foster”) from Cajal’s laboratory (Forster, 1911). On the front page (upper part) there is a brief introduction in Spanish, “by indication of professor Cajal, in whose laboratory I had the honour to work during some months”.

Cajal entrusted Dr Laura Forster to study the degeneration of nerve fibbers after traumatic lesion of the spinal cord in birds, as a complement of his own study of the subject in mammals. In Forster’s study, Cajal´s neurofibrillary techniques were applied to birds. Her results demonstrated similarities with the degenerative process described by Cajal in mammals, although degeneration after injury occurred more rapidly in birds, appearing both degenerative (retracted fibers with varicose “in ball” endings) and regenerative processes (fine nerve sprouts that penetrated the scar and the necrotic zone). Results were published in a scientific paper fully written in Spanish in the journal founded by the Nobel Prize awardee (Forster, 1911, Revista del Laboratorio de Investigaciones Biológicas) and elegantly illustrated by 6 drawings in the style of Cajal or Achúcarro.

This work was repeatedly cited by el Maestro in the following years (Cajal, 1913; Cajal 1914; Cajal 1917).

Figures of the cited work produced in Madrid, showing the proximal edge of a pigeon’s sectioned spinal cord with concomitant degenerative and regenerative phenomena. Left panel: lesion (A) with engrossed axons after section (varicous terminals in “ball”: B,D,I,J) and individual axons (F-H). Right panel: fine regenerative sprouting entering the glial scar (C-D).
Portrait of Laura Forster in her early twenties, signed in Karlsruhe (Germany) and dated between 1879 and 1884.

Biography. Laura Elizabeth Forster [1858 (Sidney, Australia) – 1917 (Zalishchyky, Russia –currently, Ukraine-)], was the daughter of Elizabeth Jane Wall and William Forster. Her father was a poet and politician. When she was four, her mother died and she was left in the care of her sister, Mary Elizabeth, who was 12 years older. In 1873, her father William married Maud Julia Edwards. With William, Maud gave Laura a half-sister, Enid, and three half-brothers. The boys – John, Herbert and Lionel – would have distinguished military careers and all would die in the World War I. Forster graduated as M.D. at the University of Bern, Switzerland (1887-1894) while conducting research activities at the Institute of Pathology for 6 years. In 1895 Laura Forster (M.D.) received the certificate allowing her to work as a GP in the United Kingdom, practicing medicine first in Glasgow, then in Edinburgh and finally in Oxford as medical officer at the Cutler Boulter Dispensary. There she studied the relation between mental and ovarian disorders and got in contact to the Physiological Laboratory at the University of Oxford, publishing her first and second papers (Forster, 1902; Forster, 1907). In order to gain greater command of neurohistological techniques, Laura Forster requested to stay “a few months” (1911) at the Laboratorio de Investigaciones Biológicas (Madrid, Spain), the laboratory of the 1906 Nobel awardee in Physiology or Medicine, Santiago Ramón y Cajal [1852 (Petilla de Aragón, Spain) -1934 (Madrid, Spain)]. In 1912, with the outburst of the First Balkan War, Dr Forster voluntarily enrolled the British Army as a nurse (since women weren´t allowed to join the Army as physicians), and was destined to the Epirus front. At the beginning of the First World War, in 1914, she joined the British Red Cross, enlist in the Allied Medical Corps and worked at the British Field Hospital in Antwerp (Belgium), becoming the first female Australian doctor to assist in the wartime medical effort. Then Forster was moved to Northern France and to Russia (1915), alternating in different fronts of the war. She volunteered as a surgeon at the largest hospital in Petrograd (Russia –current Saint Petersburg-), working “very happily with the Russian doctors, without need of an interpreter”. Later on, Dr Forster joined the Russian Red Cross and served in the Caucasus and Erzurum (Turkey), supervising a 150-beds field hospital for infectious diseases in the middle of a typhus epidemic during the summer of 1916. Finally, she was sent into a hospital operated by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (United Kingdom) in Zalishchyky, in the Galicia region (Russia).

On February 11th, 1917, Dr Forster died because of a heart failure after an attack of influenza and was buried in Zalishchyky under Russian Orthodox rites. Her last research data were published posthumously in March 1917 (Forster, 1917) and reprinted the following year (Forster, 1918). Laura Forster was relatively soon recognized as an icon for female physicians in Australia and the Commonwealth.

In November 1926, Mary Forster Kater, Laura’s sister, provided funding to the Sydney University Women’s College in her memory. The college awarded the annual ‘Dr Laura Forster Memorial Fund’ scholarship to any student from any of the university’s colleges until 1985 (Wagner, 2017).

Manuela Serra

First page of the paper published by Manuela Serra in 1921, indicating she was “from [the] Cajal Institute”.

Manuela Serra published as single author a paper describing the intracellular fibrils of ependymal cells and astrocytes in the spinal cord of the frog (Serra, 1921). In this paper, Manuela uses the “Cajal’s new method to colour neuroglia”, and illustrated her results in elegant Cajal-like drawings. One of these drawings shows spinal cord neuroglia cells of an adult frog in mitosis. This stage is very rare to see and shows that astrocytes can divide even when they have reached the level of maturation (in which they have gliofibrils). This is the only case of a technician signing a scientific work in the Cajal School, either alone or together with senior researchers.

Reproduction of Figure 1 from Serra (1921), showing a transverse section of the amphibian spinal cord, including some of the main descriptions in the article, like ependymal cells with robust glio-fibrils (A) or subpial cones (D).
Portrait of Manuela Serra at the time she was working at the Instituto de Investigaciones biológicas (reproduced with the permission of the Serra Family).

Biography. Manuela Serra [1900 (Madrid, Spain)-1988 (Madrid, Spain)] was the second of six siblings. Her father, José Serra y López de Sagredo, a legal secretary of the higher court of justice, died when she was 17, leaving her mother to raise six children (the youngest one was 4 years old). Aiming to contribute to the family budget, Manuela Serra started working at the Laboratorio de Investigaciones Biológicas (Santiago Ramón y Cajal´s laboratory) as an assistant or technician in 1918. Soon, Cajal felt moved by “Manuela´s indefatigable industriousness eager to learn, alive and lucid intelligence”, and offered himself to cover the costs of Manuela´s Medicine studies but her mother refused. Although Manuela Serra was not a medical doctor or senior researcher, she appeared in the Memorandum of the JAE (Junta para la Ampliación de Estudios) enlisted as a member of the Laboratorio de Investigaciones Científicas every year from 1921-1925, and in order to compensate her scientific contribution, the JAE approved to concede her a special monthly retribution (225 pesetas of the time). In the Memorandum of JAE 1921-22 she is included in the list of directors and managers of the work organized by the Junta.

In 1927, she got married and gave up working in the lab, as was the custom at that time. She had two children and finally died in Madrid in 1988.

In the 3rd edition of Cajal´s autobiographic memories, he included “Manuela Serra” among his disciples (Cajal, 1923), citing her publication (Serra, 1921). This is very exceptional since university degree had a remarkable relevance for the society at that time and Manuela Serra was the only one among the cited disciples with no university degree.


To cite this profile, please use the following format:

Nombela, C., Giné, E., Sanz, C., Martínez, C. and de Castro, F. (2020). Laura Forster and Manuela Serra at the Cajal School. In WiNEu, European Women in Neuroscience, Untold stories: the Women Pioneers of Neuroscience in Europe. Retrieved from https://wineurope.eu/forster-serra-cajal-school/

Selected work

  • Forster, L. (1894). MuskeIspindeIn. Virchow’s Archiv, CXXXVII. p. 121.
  • Forster, L. (1902). Note on foetal muscle spindles. J. Physiol. 28, 201–203.
  • Forster, L. (1907). Histology of tuberculosis in the human lymphatic gland. J. Pathol. Bacteriol. 12, 58–65.
  • Forster, L. (1911). La degeneración traumática en la médula espinal de las aves. Trab. Lab. Invest. Biol. Univ. Madrid. 9, 255–268.
  • Forster, L. (1917) Histological examination of the ovaries in mental disease. Proc. R. Soc. Med. 10, 65-87.
  • Forster, L. (1918). Histological examination of the ovaries in mental disease. Arch. Neurol. Pathol. 7, 1–23.
  • Serra, M. (1921). Nota sobre las gliofibrillas de la neuroglía de la rana. Trab. Lab. Invest. Biol. 19, 217–229.


Other citations of Forster´s paper at the Cajal laboratory

  • Clemente, C.D. Regeneration in the vertebrate Central Nervous System. In: International Review of Neurobiology. Volume 6. (pp 258-301). Eds: C.C. Pfeiffer and John R. (1964). Smythies. Elsevier.
  • Lauro, G.M., Margotta, V., Venturini, G., Teichner, A., Caronti, B., Palladini, G. (1992) Correlation between immune response and CNS regeneration in vertebrate phylogenesis, Italian Journal of Zoology, 59:2, 215-220. DOI: 10.1080/11250009209386670
  • Ramon y Cajal, S., Defelipe, J., Jones, E.G., May, R.M. (2012). Cajal’s Degeneration and Regeneration of the Nervous System. London: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195065169.001.0001.
  • Wong, B.L. (1983). Axonal Regeneration in Mammals with Spinal Cord Injury (Thesis dissertation).  Faculty of the Department of Anatomy, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USA)


  • Cajal, S.R. (1913). Estudios Sobre la Degeneración y Regeneración del sistema  nervioso. Madrid: Imprenta de Hijos de Nicolás Moya.
  • Cajal, S.R. (1914). Estudios Sobre la Degeneración y Regeneración del sistema nervioso. Madrid: Imprenta de Hijos de Nicolás Moya.
  • Cajal, S.R. (1917). Recuerdos de mi Vida. Madrid: Imprenta de Hijos de Nicolás Moya.
  • Cajal, S.R. (1923). Recuerdos de mi Vida 3rd edn. Madrid: Imprenta de Juan Pueyo.
  • ‘Forster, Laura (1858–1917)’, Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/forster-laura-17879/text29468
  • Giné, E., Martínez, C., Sanz, C., Nombela, C, and de Castro, F. (2019). The Women Neuroscientists in the Cajal School. Front. Neuroanat. 13:72.
  • Nombela, C., Giné, E. and de Castro, F. (2020). Manuela Serra: peripecia en la Escuela de Cajal, entre técnico de laboratorio y neurocientífica. Neuroscience and History (in press)
  • Wagner, R. L. (2017). “Dr Laura Elizabeth Forster”. Sabretache (Vol. LVIII, No.4): 26-38.