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Camillo Golgi

Born 1843
Died 1926

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Italian physician and histologist/cytologist, born July 7, 1843, Corteno (now Corteno Golgi); died January 21, 1926, Pavia.

Biography of Camillo Golgi

Camillo Golgi was born in Corteno in the Lombardy, now called Corteno Golgi, where his father, Alessandro Golgi, a graduate of the University of Pavia, was the local doctor. He was originally named Camillini, but he later found it too fancy and changed it to Camillo. He studied medicine at the University of Pavia, graduating in 1865, aged twenty-two. As an undergraduate he was an 'intern student' the Institute of Psychiatry directed by Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909).

From 1865 to 1872 he was resident in the Ospedale di San Matteo in Pavia, frequently working in the Instituto di Patologia Generale, directed by Giulio Bizzozero (1846-1901), the discoverer of the platelet. Bizzozero introduced Golgi to experimental research and histological techniques, and they became friends for life.

Under the direction of Cesare Lombroso, Golgi carried out studies on pellagra, resulting in his first publication, in 1868. The next was on the pathology in 45 cases of smallpox, the first major publication on the pathology of the bone marrow. Influenced by Lombroso's theories, he stated that mental diseases could be due to organic lesions of the neural centres. Golgi then concentrated his efforts on the experimental study of the structure of the nervous system. In this decision he was also influenced by Rudolf Virchow's epoch-making work Cellular Pathology as Based Upon Physiological and Pathological Histology (1858).

However, in 1872 financial problems forced him to interrupt his academic career and he accepted the post of chief resident physician to the Hospital for the chronically ill – Ospizio Cronico – in Abbiategrasso, a small town near Milano and Pavia. Here in his kitchen, made into a rudimentary laboratory, working mainly at night by candlelight, he discovered in 1873 a silver chromate method for staining nerve tissue. This method, the so-called black reaction – la reazione nera – was to have major importance to his further studies of the nerves, and which made possible the demonstration of the existence of the cells that now bear his name.

In 1875 Golgi published, in an article on the olfactory bulbs, the first drawings of neural structures as visualised by the technique he had invented. In the same year, Golgi returned to Pavia, where he was appointed in 1876 as Extraordinarius in Histology. In 1877 he married Lina Aletti (Bizzozero's niece). They had no children, and adopted Golgi's niece Carolina.

In 1876 Golgi became extraordinary professor of histology at the University of Pavia, and that year was invited to Siena as ordinarius of anatomy. However, he preferred to accept a post as professor extraordinary of histology at the University of Pavia, 32 years of age. In 1881 he was appointed to the chair of General Pathology at the University of Pavia, and he also maintained his teaching in histology. He stayed in Pavia for the remainder of his career.

In the Institute of General Pathology he established a very active laboratory, with international contacts, and was especially gifted in stimulating his students and foreign guests. In Golgi's laboratory, Adelchi Negri (1876-1912) discovered the intraneuronal inclusions (the Negri bodies) which represent specific features of rabies, Emilio Veratti (1872-1967), described for the first time the sarcoplasmic reticulum in skeletal muscle fibres.

The discovery of Golgi cells led the German anatomist Wilhelm von Waldeyer-Hartz (1836-1921) to postulate in 1891 that the nerve cell is the basic structural unit of the nervous system, a critical point in the development of modern neurology. Ramon y Cajal established this as a fact. Wilhelm His (1831-1904) in 1887, established that axons are outgrowths from primitive nerve cells, and by 1889 demonstrated the individuality of the nerve cells. Waldeyer-Hartz, Wilhelm His and the Norwegian zoologist, histologist and polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), are now generally considered the originators of the neuron theory of the nervous system. Nansen's fame here rests upon his doctoral thesis, "The Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System" (1887). Nansen was the Nobel Laureate in Peace 1922.

In 1880 Golgi described the point now known as Golgi's tendon spindle, and in 1886 discovered the presence of nerve cells in an irregular network of fibrils, vesicles and granules, now known as the Golgi complex or Golgi's apparatus. This had, however, been described by Adolf Freiherr Von La Valette St. George (1831-1910) in the sexual cells of snails in 1867.

In the years 1885-1893 he concentrated his efforts on malaria research and demonstrated that in relapsing malaria the organism develops in the organs whilst in the attack it cycles in the red cell. He recognised that the severity of an attack of malaria was proportional to the number of parasites in the blood, and reported the distinguishing morphological features of the parasite of quartan and tertian malaria, and that the fever corresponds to the release of merozoites. In 1886 he described the development of the quartan malaria parasite.

In 1906 Golgi shared the Nobel Prize with Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), "in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system". Before the decision there had been some severe controversies between the two scientists on the one hand, and the members of the jury on the other hand, because Golgi's discovery was older, and because the works of Ramon y Cajal were so dependent on that of Golgi, without which Ramon y Cajal would probably never have arrived at his results. However, many now consider Ramón y Cajal the greater of the two. He once described their relationship as that of "two Siamese brothers attached to the back".

Golgi was dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Pavia, and rector of this university for several years. Golgi also received honours from several European universities. He took an active part in public life; he was especially concerned with public health, and became a senator in 1900. He retired in 1918 but remained as professor emeritus at the University of Pavia. Golgi died in Pavia in January 1926.

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