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Aldo Castellani

Born 1874
Died 1971

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Italian pathologist and bacteriologist, born September 8, 1874, Florence; died October 3, 1971, Lisbon, Portugal.

Biography of Aldo Castellani

Aldo Castellani was a colourful figure in the world of medicine, one of those who managed to live an exciting and eventful life on many levels. His contemporaries described him as a fascinating raconteur, but also something of a snob and a rabid monarchist.

While studying medicine at the University of Florence, from 1893-1899, Castellani was so intent on seeing patients in the ward and examining them with percussion that his fellow students nicknamed him Marvelling - «little hammer». He also took a special interest in dermatology and was taught by professor Celso Pellizzari (1851-1925), the best known dermatologist in Italy at the time.

When putting medicine aside, whilst a student he travelled with the university fencing team. The professor who influenced him the most was Pietro Grocco (1856-1916)) who appointed him student interno. Undergraduates at the time could attend courses at different medical schools and in the summer Castellani attended various English hospitals. His graduation thesis was on the isolation of typhoid bacillus from the blood. He was conferred doctor of medicine in Florence in 1899.

Castellani worked for a period of time with professor Walther Kruse (1864-1943) at Bonn University. There he learned in the laboratory the technique of making broth for bacterial studies and developed a test which was used in many parts of the world to differentiate closely related bacteria. He undertook further studies at the London School of Tropical Medicine, where he was greatly impressed by Patrick Manson’s (1844-1922) lectures.

In 1903 Castellani was invited to join an expedition to Uganda to investigate an epidemic of sleeping sickness. He discovered that the organism Trypanosome ambience was present in the cerebrospinal fluid of a majority of patients suffering from sleeping sickness and was the first person to establish its cause. This was published in the British Medical Journal that year.

Late in 1903 he was appointed professor at the Medical College of Colombo and director of the bacteriological institute in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was here, in 1905, he found the causative agent of framboesia. His discovery was published in the Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift the following year. He remained in Ceylon until 1915 and later described his time there from 1903 to 1915 as the happiest years of his life. He married an English woman in 1910 and his daughter Jacqueline married the distinguished diplomat Sir Miles Wedderburn Lampson, 1st Baron Killearn (1880-1864) in 1934.

Although an Anglophile, Castellani never adopted English nationality, and in 1915 when Italy joined the war, he returned to the medical service of the Italian Navy. He first served with the Italian Navy, then with the English on Balkan, and in 1917 with the intra-allied medical commission. Also in 1917, he reported a method for the detection of glucose and other sugars in urine based on the power of certain species of hypomycetes to ferment carbohydrates.

Whilst he had been in Ceylon, Castellani developed a triple vaccine (T.A.B.) and a quadruple vaccine which included cholera (T.A.B.C.) which was first used in 1916 in the Serbian Army. On the urging of Sir Patrick Manson he was called to the London School of Tropical medicine as a lecturer, and from 1924 to 1930 he was professor of tropical medicine at Tulane University, New Orleans.

In 1931 he founded the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Rome. Here he made making important choices for Italian public health: for instance, during the Italian-Ethiopian War he proved to be an "additional weapon" for the Italian Army. The Italian campaign (1835-1836) to colonize Ethiopia is reckoned as one of the most shameful in colonial history and was little more than mass murder of a poorly armed people desperately trying to defend itself. This was Italy's revenge for the defeat at Adua in 1896.

Castellani spent the last part of his life travelling, but he remained personal physician to the former Italian king Umberto II, exiled in Cascais and professor in the Tropical Medicine Institute of Lisbon. He was knighted in 1928. During the Second World War his English honours were withdrawn, but later re-granted by Queen Elizabeth.

In 1959 Aldo Castellani and Frederick Reiss founded The International Society of Dermatology.

We thank Patrick Jucker-Kupper, Switzerland, for information submitted.

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