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Ettore Marchiafava

Born  1847
Died  1935

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Italian physician, pathologist, and neurologist, born January 3, 1847, Rome; died 1935, Rome.

Biography of Ettore Marchiafava

Ettore Marchiafava was son of Anna Vercelli and Francesco Marchiafava. He was born in Rome, where remained in his native city throughout his long and distinguished career. Marchiafava studied in Rome, obtained his doctorate there in 1872 and was assistant at the chair of pathological-anatomy under Tommasi Crudeli (1834-1900). His ability was early recognized by the award of a gold medal at the completion of his medical course. He became associate professor at the Royal University of Rome in 1881 and in 1836, only thirty-six years of age, he was appointed to the chair of pathological anatomy, the chair having become vacated by Crudeli’s change to the chair of hygiene. He became professor of medicine in 1917, remaining in that position until his retirement in 1921/1922.

The great prevalence of communicable diseases, especially malaria and tuberculosis, exerted a strong influence in determining Marchiafava’s line of research. After obtaining a degree at the University of Rome in 1869, he went for a short period to Berlin, where Koch was making progress in the study of tuberculosis. The young scientist returned to Italy with a strong interest in bacteriology and parasitology.

Marchiafava's spent many years studying the morphology and the biological cycle of the malarial parasite. He showed the modifications that the presence of amoeboid bodies causes in the erythrocytes, and demonstrated that these changes were closely related to the growth and multiplication of the parasites. This demonstration derived from the parallel study of microscopic blood data and the clinical pattern of fever peaks.

The most important result of the research was Marchiafava’s discovery that malarial infection is transmitted through the blood. He spent the entire period from 1880 to 1891 in this intensive study, which enabled him to distinguish between the agent of the estivo-autumnal fever and that of the tertian and quartan fevers. He urged the adoption of antimalarial measures.

In 1884 Marchiafava, in collaboration with Angelo Celli (1857-1914), identified meningococcus as the etiological agent of cerebral and spinal meningitis. Also in 1884, Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran (1845-1922), who found the malaria parasite in 1880, showed his findings to Marchiafava and Angelo Celli who with their powerful immersion microscopes could finally confirm Laveran's theory of an animal parasite, to which they gave the name Plasmodium. The theory was definitely verified by Giovanni Battista Grassi.

Throughout his career Marchiafava maintained an intense interest in diseases of the nervous system, both infectious and degenerative, Among his early contributions to this field was the first description of syphilitic cerebral arteritis. In 1897 he first observed primary degeneration of the corpus callosum in the brain of an alcoholic patient, and in 1903, with Bignami, published a definitive account of the disorder, now known as Marchiafava's disease or Marchiafava-Bignami disease.

A pioneer in the field of cardiac pathology, Marchiafava showed the importance of coronary sclerosis in the pathogenesis of cardiac infarction and suggested the use of theobromine as a treatment for this disease. Early in his career he made other important studies that showed the bacterial nature of endocardial ulcers. He also did research on angiotic obliteration in interstitial inflammations and particularly in tuberculosis and examined in detail the structural modifications occurring where the bronchi join the lungs, as well as the clinical epidemiology of the disease. On kidney pathology he studied and described glomerulonephritis related to infections such as scarlet fever.

Marchiafava established the life cycle of Plasmodium falciparum as well as differentiating the three types of malarial parasites: tertial, quartan and aestino-autumnal. He published an editorial on the effects of alcohol on the brain and gave the first description of syphilitic cerebral arteritis. Personal physician to three Popes and the House of Savoy, he won the Manson Medal for his research in tropical medicine. He was a highly successful medical practitioner and a very modest and cultured man.

Besides his investigative work, Marchiafava was a busy and highly successful practitioner of internal medicine. He was the personal physician of three popes and of the house of Savoy. Of the many honours which Marchiafava received, he valued most his appointment as Senator of the Realm in 1913 and the award of the Manson medal in 1926.

In 1916 he succeeded Baccellis in the chair of clinical medicine in Rome, and retired in 1921. After his official retirement in 1922 he continued his research and writing in the department he had helped organize.

Marchiafava was a modest, kind and cultured Roman, interested in the classic as well as his contemporaries. One of his later publications was a detailed study of Horace's references to wine. He remained aloof from the clamourings for credit which marred so much of the work of some of his contemporaries in malaria research.


  • Nuovi studî sulla natura della malaria. With G. Cuboni. Rome, 1881.
  • Weitere Untersuchungen über die Malariainfection. With Angelo Celli.
    Fortschritte der Medicin, München, 1885, 3: 787-806.
    First accurate description of the malaria Plasmodium discovered by Laveran in 1880. These writers were the first to adopt the name P. marlariae.
  • Sul parasita delle febbre gravi estivo-autunnali. Rome, 1889.
  • Über die Malariafieber Roms. With Angelo Celli. Berlin, 1890.
  • Sulle febbre malariche estivo-automnali.
    With Amico Bignami. Rome, E. Loescher, 1892.
    A summary of the Italian work on malaria. Translated into English in 1894.
  • La infezione malarica.With Amico Bignami.
    Milano, 1903; 2nd edition, 1931.
    Ettore Marchiafava and Amico Bignami studied "aestivoautomnal" (malignant tertian) fevers and showed that it was a third plasmodium that caused these fevers. It is this parasite that causes infections which can often be fatal.
  • La perniciositè della malaria. Rome, 1928.
  • La credità in patologia. Torino, 1930. Biographies etc:
  • G. Bompiani:
    Ettore Marchiafava. Pathologica. 1936, 28: 93-99.

  • L. W. Hackett:
    Prof. Ettore Marchiafava.
    Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 1936, 29.

  • L. Stroppiana:
    Ettore Marchiafava a cento anni della nascità. Castalia.
  • P. Verga:
    Ettore Marchiafava. Riforma medica, 1935, 51: 1736-1737.

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