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Friday, 11 March 2016

Marcello Malpighi

Marcello Malpighi was born on March 10, 1628 at Crevalcore near Bologna, Italy. The son of well-to-do parents, Malpighi was educated in his native city, entering the University of Bologna at the age of 17. Both parents died when he was 21, but he was able, nevertheless, to continue his studies.

In 1653 Malpighi left his family villa and returned to the University of Bologna to study anatomy.
Malpigi was made a reader at Bologna three years later, and then a professor of physics at Pisa, where he began to apply himself to a more experimental method of research. Weary of philosophical contention, in 1660, Malpighi returned to Bologna and dedicated himself to the study of anatomy.

In the early 1660s Malpigi began his studies of lung tissue, using frog lung. This was well suited to the early microscope, which had developed in Galileo's time after 1600 but was optically poor; much of the best work in the 1650s was done using a single lens rather than a compound system. Frog lung is almost transparent, with a simple and conspicuous capillary system.

Malpighi was able to observe the frog's capillaries for the first time and to see that it was linked to the venous system on one side and to the arterial system on the other, thereby vindicating and completing William Harvey's work on the animal circulation.

As a result of a glowing recommendation from mathematician and friend Giovanni Borelli, Malpighi was invited to the University of Messina where he occupied the post of a professor from 1662.

Malpighi studied the brain, kidney, liver, nerves and skin, identifying new structures. For example, after he dissected the body of a black man, Malpighi made some groundbreaking headway into the origin of black skin. He found that the black pigment was associated with a layer of mucus just beneath the skin.

Portrait of Marcello Malpighi pointing to the fontanel of a baby's skull, by an unknown painter

In 1666 Malpighi was the first to see the red blood cells and to attribute the color of blood to them.

In 1669 the microscope let Malpighi discover that the silk worm does not use lungs to breathe, but small holes in their skin called spiracles. This turned out to be true of all insects.

Malpighi spent a great deal of time studying chick embryos at various stages of maturity. By studying with his microscope the embryos, Malpighi was able to observe the formation of the structures that become the chicks' hearts and blood vessels. This work he documented in De Formatione de pulli in ovo in 1673.

In the 1670s Malpighi turned to plant anatomy, discovering stomata in leaves and describing the development of the plant embryo.

A talented sketch artist, Malpighi seems to have been the first author to have made detailed drawings of individual organs of flowers.

Malpighi’s work at Messina attracted the attention of the Royal Society in London, whose secretary, Henry Oldenburg, extended him an invitation in 1668 to correspond with him. The Royal Society published two volumes of his botanical and zoological works in 1675 and 1679. Another edition followed in 1687, and a supplementary volume in 1697.

Marcello Malpighi, oil on canvas by Carlo Cignani
His findings were not received well by his colleagues who despised Malpighi because of his non-Bolognese ancestry. His views evoked increasing controversy and dissent, mainly from envy and lack of understanding on the part of his colleagues.

In 1684 Malpighi's villa was burned, his apparatus and microscopes shattered, and his papers, books, and manuscripts destroyed.

Most probably as a compensatory move for the opposition he faced and in recognition of his stature, in 1691 Pope Innocent XII invited Malpighi to Rome as papal physician. He taught medicine in the Papal Medical School and wrote a long treatise about his studies which he donated to the Royal Society of London.

Marcello Malpighi died of apoplexy (an old-fashioned term for a stroke or stroke-like symptoms) in Rome on November 29, 1694, at the age of 66. In accordance with his wishes, an autopsy was performed. The Royal Society published his studies in 1696.

Marcello Malpighi is buried in the church of the Santi Gregorio e Siro, in Bologna, where nowadays can be seen a marble monument to the scientist with an inscription in Latin remembering – among other things – his "SUMMUM INGENIUM / INTEGERRIMAM VITAM / FORTEM STRENUAMQUE MENTEM / AUDACEM SALUTARIS ARTIS AMOREM" (great genius, honest life, strong and tough mind, daring love for the medical art).

Malpighi's tomb in Bologna

Because of this work, many microscopic anatomical structures are named after Malpighi, including a skin layer (Malpighi layer) and two different Malpighian corpuscles in the kidneys and the spleen, as well as the Malpighian tubules in the excretory system of insects.

Sources Europress Family Encyclopedia 1999, Comptons Encyclopedia .

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