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Miguel Marín-Padilla, Renowned Pathologist Who Unraveled the Brain’s Secrets, Dies 

Miguel Marin-Padilla
Miguel Marin-Padilla in his study at his home in Hanover, N.H. Photo by Lars Blackmore.

Miguel Marín-Padilla, MD, MA, professor emeritus of pathology and laboratory medicine and of pediatrics at Geisel School of Medicine died February 10, 2023. He was 92 years old. 

“It was a sad day to learn of Miguel’s passing—perhaps he would not think so for himself; he lived as long and as meaningful a life as I think any of us could wish—but for the rest of us who have lost such a rare, if not downright unique, individual,” says Leslie Henderson, PhD, professor of physiology and neurobiology, and of biochemistry and cell biology. “Miguel was not only a scientist who contributed key findings to our understanding of the development of the human cortex, but also an artist, whose photographs of neurons, glia, and endothelial cells would make his hero, Ramón y Cajal, proud. And most of all, Miguel was a gentleman and a gentle soul whose kindness I will remember always.” 

After graduating from Granada University School of Medicine and working for one year as a pediatrician in rural Spain, Marín-Padilla emigrated to the U.S. to pursue his goal of teaching and research. In 1962 during the last year of his pathology residency at the Mallory Institute of Pathology in Boston, Massachusetts, he attended a conference at Dartmouth, fell in love with “the little college in the woods,” and saw it as an ideal place to raise his young family. He joined the faculty in July of that year. 

“Miguel is at the top of the list when one talks about beloved faculty members. He believed in students and brought out the best in them,” says Joseph O’Donnell, MD, professor emeritus of medicine and of psychiatry. 

“He was an amazing neurosciences researcher and so proud of his Cajal medal—Miguel’s pictures of the layers of the cerebral cortex are works of art. Also, he was the first faculty member elected to AOA.  

“Each year in December, before leaving for Florida, he’d leave a sticky note on my office door that said, “Feliz Navidad,” O’Donnell recalls. “He was a giant here and left his mark on so many. I loved the guy!” 

Miguel Marín-Padilla
Miguel Marin-Padilla in his Remsen office prior to his retirement. (photo by Pier Bastianeli)

Throughout his long career, Marín-Padilla, who specialized in infants and children, combined his clinical expertise in pediatrics and pathology teaching general pathology to Dartmouth medical students, and developmental pathology to pediatricians and neonatologists at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center for nearly 40 years. 

Devoted to his students, he challenged them to think and presented concepts through ancient history or art to stimulate their learning. They frequently visited his office as well as his home to talk about their futures--his home was often filled with students and lively conversation.   

“The many conversations I had with him in English and Spanish during the years were wonderful. He had a personal touch that made you feel important,” Miguel Damien MED ’81/’82 fondly recalls. “You mattered to him, and he valued your friendship. It was wonderful to have this as a student from a great professor. Those anenchepalic skulls are ingrained in my memory.   

“When my father who was a pathologist came to visit me, we would take Dr. Marín-Padilla out to dinner in Hanover—the two of them would enchant with their discussions about tissues, nerves, and brain development. Of course, we also talked about Cuban and South American politics. A wonderful Renaissance man who will not be forgotten.”  

For Daniel Lucey MED’81/’82, Marín-Padilla was an inspiration to him and to many medical students over the decades, both personally and as a teacher of pathology. 

“In the spring of our first year, our class voted Dr. Marín-Padilla as the one and only faculty member to give us a special talk on our future lives as physicians. He inspired us by saying that our work had already started because ‘this is YOUR medical school’ and we should already be taking responsibility for getting the most out of our education as students here at Dartmouth,” Lucey recalls. 

“In our class of 1981 traditional skit at the end of our pre-clinical training, I played Dr. Marín-Padilla as he memorably used the Greek myth of Prometheus to teach us that the liver can regenerate! 

“Many years later when I made a modest donation to the Geisel Alumni Fund in his name, Dr. Marín-Padilla sent me a handwritten note of gratitude. Today, the thousands of us he taught over the decades owe Dr. Marín-Marin-Padilla a remembrance with eternal gratitude for his inspiration as a person and one of our very best teachers.”  

Marín-Padilla’s interest in pathology fueled a desire to learn the method used by Santiago Ramon y Cajal, Nobel Laureate from Spain. In 1966, he spent a sabbatical year in Madrid learning the Golgi Method (a process of staining nerve tissue allowing neurons to be seen with great clarity) at the Cajal Institute. 

Beginning in the late 1970s, Marín-Padilla devoted his life to studying the human brain using the Golgi method. In 1989 his research on the cerebral cortex garnered the Jacob Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award—given by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to investigators of “exceptional talent, imagination, and preeminent scientific achievement.” 

This example of a camera lucida drawing created by Marin-Padilla from a series of Golgi preparations shows the neuronal composition of the motor cortex of an infant.

He received numerous honors throughout his lifetime, including the Spanish Society of Anatomical Pathology and the International Academy of Pathology, the Gold Medal from the University of Granada, the Honorary Medal from the University School of Medicine Valencia, the Krieg Cortical Kudos Cortical Discoverer Award, and several Cajal medals. His hometown, Jumilla, Spain, where there is a statue in his honor and where his legacy will remain in a museum for neuroscientists to visit and learn, named him a favorite son or “Hijo predilecto de Jumilla.”  In 2021, he received the Spanish Knighthood by unanimous decision, but at 91 was unable to attend the ceremony. 

Javier DeFelipe, PhD, a neuroanatomist who received the Krieg Cortical Kudos award in 1999, recalls his friend and fellow researcher: 

“The passing of Miguel Marín-Padilla is a huge loss for all those who had the great fortune to know him well. I remember his visits to the Instituto Cajal where I met him for the first time, a long time ago, in 1980. Since then, he had become both a great friend and valued colleague. He was always willing to share with us his vast knowledge on the morphology and development of the neuronal components of the human cerebral cortex. He spent virtually his entire scientific life dedicated to the study of the human brain using the method of Camillo Golgi, following the footsteps of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “nuestro maestro”, as he used to say. Thanks to this technique, the beginning of the detailed microanatomical study of the brain was made possible, starting in the 1890s with Cajal’s master works on the structure of the brain.  

“The application of the Golgi method was not only useful for examining the morphology and distribution of neurons, but also for revealing the connections between them, and between afferent fibers and neurons. These studies gave rise to another great advance, namely that of tracing the first circuit diagrams of the cerebral cortex. These early diagrams, which increased in complexity as more data became available, reached a high point of complexity and refinement with one of his more prominent disciples Rafael Lorente de Nó in the 1930s. After these studies, for several reasons that are not necessary to comment upon here, there were very few articles about cortical circuits. However, renewed interest in the method of Golgi arose in the 1960s and 1970s mainly after the publication of several important contributions, among them those of Miguel, which were recognized as some of the most outstanding.  

“I remember the wonderful and interesting conversations I had with Miguel during his numerous visits to my laboratory in Spain—or when we met during the annual meetings of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). Over the years, during the SfN meetings, we always found time to go to dinner together with another great friend, neuroanatomist and master, Ted Jones, who unfortunately has also passed away and would have deeply lamented Miguel’s passing as all of us do now. We will never forget Miguel’s friendly nature and good humor as well as his enthusiasm and tenacity for the study of the human cerebral cortex that he maintained until the very end of his long and fulfilling life.  

“Miguel, thank you for the good times—all your friends and colleagues will miss you very much.” 

After becoming a professor emeritus in 1998, he remained active, lecturing to students and residents in pathology, and writing both a novel and memoir. In 2021, he published a novel, Leyendas de Altamira, in his native language.