A mind-controlling vaccine? A Spanish neuroscientist already thought of that in the 1800s

An exhibition in Madrid reveals little-known facets of the Nobel Prize winner Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who spun a science fiction tale of oppression by injection

The scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal in the second row behind the white-haired man, with friends in Valencia around 1885.
The scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal in the second row behind the white-haired man, with friends in Valencia around 1885.Legado Cajal (CSIC)

During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, a wild story began circulating on the internet about a global conspiracy featuring the billionaire Bill Gates and a bid to take advantage of mass vaccination to inject microchips into people as a way of controlling them.

The author of this theory should at least get some credit for imagination. Or maybe not. Curiously, a similar tale was invented by the Spanish scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal more than a century ago.

Three years before revealing the architecture of the human brain in 1888, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906, Ramón y Cajal – considered the father of neuroscience and a voracious reader of French writer Jules Verne – penned a humorous science fiction fable called El fabricante de honradez (or The Honesty Maker). In it, a certain Doctor Alejandro Mirahonda, a man “with the beard and eyes of a Byzantine Christ” announces that he has discovered a “moral vaccine” and convinces the authorities in the industrial city of Villabronca to inoculate the population. His goal is to achieve “the ethical purification of the human race and the conversion of vicious and criminal people into proven, decent and correct persons.”

Ramón y Cajal published The Honesty Maker in 1905, along with four other stories, as displayed in a recently inaugurated exhibition on the scientist at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid. “The stories reveal him to be one of the pioneers of Spanish science fiction, although their limited distribution meant they went unnoticed by most of the public,” note the curators of the exhibition, Juan Andrés de Carlos, from the Cajal Institute of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), and Cristina Cánovas, deputy director of the museum.

The fictional city of Villabronca, as depicted by Ramón y Cajal, was submerged in a “rising tide of robberies, drunkenness, quarrels, contempt for authority and depravity.” The zealous Mirahonda consequently launched a vaccination campaign and managed to have the town’s entire population vaccinated in the following few days behind a folding screen while a musical troupe provided the soundtrack to the operation. “The results of the moral vaccine were great, exceeding the most optimistic estimates. Criminality ceased completely; vice, greed and dishonesty seemed to have gone forever,” wrote the neuroscientist in his tale.

Born in the Navarre village of Petilla de Aragón in 1852, Ramón y Cajal made it into the history books for his work demonstrating the individuality of neurons, which he described as “the telegraphic threads of thought,” but he was also a pioneer in vaccines. The year he wrote The Honesty Maker, there was just one vaccine in existence and it was used against smallpox after being made from viruses cultivated on cowhide. But in 1885, Ramón y Cajal invented “the chemical vaccine,” an injection of dead bacteria that would protect the population against cholera, which was threatening Spain at that time. The National Museum of Natural Sciences now exhibits a metal syringe from the era and other gems from the so-called Cajal Legacy, such as the Nobel Prize gold medal and original drawings of his forests of brain neurons. “Each drawing is a small work of art,” says curator De Carlos.

But in his science fiction story, Cajal reveals the less than desirable consequence of having a population injected with a moral vaccine. “Shortly after that, life became very uniform and boring,” he wrote. Visitors arriving at the city of Villabronca were confronted with “automatons, moral machines, incapable of feeling the stimulus of sin.” The cafés stood empty as there was no longer the allure of gossip. “It then became clear how difficult it is to make people laugh in the absence of mischief, and it became evident that those who were considered witty and funny were not exactly so, it’s just that they laid into people: as soon as they were prevented from sticking the knife in, they became a yawn.”

Villabronca’s ruling classes also began to complain about the blandness of the townspeople and to fear that they might have to actually work for their money. “Without vices or depraved passions and with health, money and work, what did the Villabronqueses care about political beliefs and infallible sociological panaceas?” Ramón y Cajal wrote. The people also stopped going to Mass: “Why ask God for what work and sobriety already provided?” Bored of being always honest, people started asking for an antidote that would reverse the effects of the moral vaccine.

The pioneer of neuroscience, vaccines and Spanish science fiction ended his story with a twist. There was, in fact, never an injection to control people. Dr. Mirahonda’s vaccine had been a placebo and the result nothing other than an exercise in collective delusion. The moral vaccine was as fake as the supposed microchip that conspiracy theorists believe Bill Gates is putting into vaccines. But Mirahonda continued the farce and offered the inhabitants of Villabronca an antidote: half a glass of a mysterious liquor, which was, in fact, just water.

The townspeople, including the mayor, “jumped thirstily on the demijohns and savored with infinite greed that filter of passion that promised the eye-watering sweetness of the forbidden fruit.” Immediately, they were in thrall to the opposite suggestion. “Repressed for a year, their passions exploded violently,” Ramón y Cajal wrote. “Vice was displayed with a previously unheard of brazenness and shame. For a month, the inhabitants of Villabronca were embroiled in an orgy.” The sacristan stole the collection money from the church and ran away with the priest’s landlady. And there were four murders in the space of three days.

“All the debts of love, hate, vanity, envy and even political passion were paid off in a moment, scandalizing the honest people who fled the poisoned city in droves,” the story continues. Dr. Mirahonda and his wife had to flee from Villabronca on horseback, with the good doctor reaching a very Cajalian conclusion: “Wouldn’t the suppression of evil in itself be the greatest of evils? Apparently, a little pain and social misery are indispensable; it tempers the character, sharpens understanding, gets rid of blandness, creates heroism and greatness of soul, and finally improves the human race both morally and physically.”

The so-called Cajal Legacy – some 22,000 exhibits of mainly drawings of nerve cells, letters, manuscripts and photographs – was stored in old cookie boxes and plastic bags in 1989

The Cajal exhibition will be on show at the National Museum of Natural Sciences for at least a year. Science Minister Pedro Duque presided over its inauguration. “Our commitment is to create a Cajal museum within this political term, and we will meet with all interested parties to this end,” he told EL PAÍS. “There are several possibilities and we want to study them all so that our most universal scientist, the father of neuroscience, has a museum that does him justice.”

The so-called Cajal Legacy – some 22,000 exhibits of mainly drawings of nerve cells, letters, manuscripts and photographs – was stored in old cookie boxes and plastic bags in 1989 after being moved to the Cajal Institute (CSIC), where an inventory was taken. These days it is properly stored at the research center. As the exhibition opened, the president of the CSIC, the chemist Rosa Menéndez, described the Nobel Prize winner as “the most important scientist Spain has ever produced.”

Meanwhile, The Honesty Maker is a fable with a moral that is still relevant 135 years after it was written. If you sweeten the pill of suggestion enough, people will believe anything, even a conspiracy involving millions of scientists in league with Bill Gates to control the human race. And all thanks to “the masses’ crass ignorance of the sovereign power of suggestion, the multiple forms it takes and the deplorable ease with which the best-constructed brain uncritically accepts any dogma, however absurd it may be, imposed by talent, genius or saintliness.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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